Rashtrapati Bhavan with all its grandeur can be quite intimidating. The main structure, spanning approximately five acres, is located within a vast estate of 330 acres. It boasts 340 rooms, 2.5 km of corridors and a sprawling 190-acre garden. It is reportedly the largest residence for any head of state in the world.
After the swearing-in ceremony, the president and his/her family initially move into what is known as the Guest Wing. The H-shaped Rashtrapati Bhavan has the North (Family) Wing and the South (Guest) Wing joined by the “State Corridor”. For protocol and security reasons, the president, after the swearing-in, cannot continue to live outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. Similarly, till the president-designate takes oath, the outgoing president (who is the president till the swearing-in) cannot stay outside. Consequently, the moving-in of the president-designate and the moving-out of the outgoing president happen simultaneously. The new president and the family first move into the Guest Wing, for a couple of months, till the Family Wing gets cleaned and renovated to welcome the new president.
The Guest Wing, which is far more resplendent than the Family Wing, was the family quarters of the British viceroys till independence. When the first Indian Governor General C Rajagopalachari moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan (or Government House, as it was called then) in 1948, he felt that the splendour and the luxury of the living quarters of the colonial rulers should be discarded in favour of a comparatively simple and modest accommodation. He moved to the other side of the corridor, to the current Family Wing, which is comparatively more modest, as it accommodated the viceroy’s officers rather than the viceroy. The Guest Wing now hosts presidents and prime ministers of other nations invited by our president.
The rooms in Rashtrapati Bhavan, decorated with antique furniture and Persian carpets, are palatial with high ceilings and thick walls to keep out external noise. The presence of liveried staff carrying tea in embossed china on silver trays with silver cutlery, uniformed men from the three services, along with armed guards posted on the adjoining corridors within the family quarters, hardly create a welcoming atmosphere unless one is accustomed to such grandeur. In fact, the size of my bathroom at Rashtrapati Bhavan was large enough to accommodate half of my apartment in GK!
There is hardly any segregation between private and public spaces at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I learnt it the hard way on the very first morning of my stay.
After the swearing-in ceremony, I stayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan for a week to ensure that my parents were comfortably settled. Additionally, I was keen on experiencing the initial days alongside them. For us, it was a historic occasion. After all, we were till then only one of the 13 families since independence who had stayed there as the family of the president of India. Considering that President Kalam was a bachelor, we were actually the twelfth.
My aunts and some other relatives from Bengal had come to attend the swearing-in ceremony. After enjoying a peaceful night’s rest, largely due to the absence of external noise, I made my way to my aunts’ room for a chit-chat. Since my room was adjacent to theirs, I decided not to bother putting on a different outfit and went in my nightgown. The nightgown in question was one of those classic, well-worn ones that have become so cosy over time that you simply can’t bring yourself to get rid of it. As I came out of my room, right outside the door stood a tall gentleman in a crisp white naval uniform, giving instructions to a few liveried men. All heads turned towards me in unison. The gentleman in the uniform clicked his heels in typical military style and greeted me saying, “Good morning, ma’am. Hope you had a pleasant sleep.” The “ma’am” in question simply muttered a response and hurried to her aunts’ room to conceal both her embarrassment and the worn-out nightgown.
My aunts too had their moments! After the swearing-in ceremony, lunch was organised for the new president and his family in the state dining room with all the paraphernalia of a state banquet. One of my aunts, sitting next to me, whispered, “What do you do with so many pieces of cutlery?” I told her to eat with her hand. I said I would do the same. But she was hesitant. She did not want to break the rules of “etiquette” on the very first day of her brother’s presidency and be condemned to the special “hell” reserved for those lacking so-called “social grace”! Not just her, I saw many at the table exchanging furtive glances. Noticing the tension and immediately realising the cause of it, my father declared in a loud and clear voice: “Eat with your hand.”
Later, in the privacy of her room, my aunt asked me, “Munni, how will you live here?” I declared that I had no such intention. Then she asked, “How will Dada live here?” I quipped, “That’s his problem, not mine.” But no matter how unfamiliar a situation might be, human beings have immense capacity to adapt and adjust to it. Very soon, clothed in my faded t-shirts and shorts (my at-home day wear), I was chasing my dogs in the long corridors of the Family Wing, much to the bewilderment of the armed guards posted there. And I brought two of my large coffee mugs from home. I didn’t want to begin my day having tea in embossed china!
Pranab’s first evening at Rashtrapati Bhavan was spent in the Dwarka suite, which was previously inhabited by British viceroys, with Lord Mountbatten being the last occupant. Being a history buff, it was an extraordinary moment for him. It symbolised not just how far he had come personally, but also how the son of a freedom fighter – jailed several times by the British – was now sleeping in the room once occupied by the chief of the colonial masters. For him, it symbolised the journey of a nation.
After his swearing-in, Pranab spent an entire evening with his family after many years. He wrote in his diary, “After so many years I could enjoy the company of my family members and especially with my 3 sisters. (sic) It was really nice.” But the mood did not last even 24 hours. The next day, he was feeling “a bit bored”. The day after, on July 27, there was an outburst. He wrote, “I don’t know how am I going to adjust to this new life. There is no stress, no strain and in fact no activity. This is really painful.” This was despite the fact that there was some activity. The PM came to meet him in the morning and they had a “long discussion”. There were also internal meetings and courtesy calls by several officers of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Pranab obviously missed being occupied for 18 hours a day and having a crisis to resolve. But then he rationalised, “What to do? One has to call it a day and hang his boots.” However, he was yet to hang his boots. Though retired from politics, Pranab became a proactive president. He quickly became busy taking on various roles as the visitor of central universities and the supreme commander of the armed forces in his capacity as president, reviving many traditions of Rashtrapati Bhavan and introducing several new initiatives. One of his main objectives was to make Rashtrapati Bhavan more accessible to the people. Though nothing compared to his days in politics, he found himself quite occupied. He also had his fair share of “stress and strain”.
There were several lessons for me as well. It was during this time that I learned an interesting fact about the president’s security. Despite being the supreme commander of the forces, the multi-layered security of the president of India is handled by the police, not the armed forces. In Delhi, the president’s security is managed by the Delhi Police. When the president travels outside the state, it becomes the duty of the respective state police forces to ensure the president’s security.
I asked my father why the responsibility for presidential security is not entrusted to the armed forces, given that the president is their supreme commander. He explained that the president is the head of a civilian state, and it is the responsibility of the civilian government to provide protection. The intention behind this action was not mere symbolism to make a point, but to ensure that the president, as the supreme commander, does not overstep his/her boundaries and assume unconstitutional powers with the support of the armed forces.
Excerpted with permission from Pranab, My Father: A Daughter Remembers, Sharmistha Mukherjee, Rupa Publications.