As we turned off from the main road, there had been a mandatory burst of welcoming firecrackers. We had stopped on a slope on slightly higher ground and had walked down the approach, a few hundred yards or so to the open space in front of the main temple at Sriperumbudur, where a red carpet had been laid out.
As Rajiv Gandhi got out from the car’s front seat, he had said, “Come, come, follow me…” and I had demurred, walking to the back and around and then to the front of the car so I could have a bird’s eye view of the venue without having to deal with the throng.
“I have one more question,” I had said, “I’ll wait for you here.”
A bomb, a suicide bomber, let alone the first female suicide bomber on Indian soil was the last thing on anyone’s mind as Mr Gandhi plunged into the crowd of supporters on his way to the podium, at the far side of the ground, shaking hands, smiling warmly as was his wont, at everyone who reached out to him.
But as the huge explosion went off a few minutes later and I felt what I later realised was blood and gore from the victims splatter all over my arms and my white saree, a nameless dread took hold – something terrible had happened to the man I had just been talking with.
The last time I had followed Mr Gandhi into a crowd was exactly two years before, in 1989 in Kalwakurty, the constituency of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, the iconic, larger than life NT Rama Rao, where Mr. Gandhi was set to campaign.
At that time, we had driven in what seemed like an endless 100-car cavalcade, complete with Black Cat commandos and top security, all the way from Hyderabad to the venue, and as I got out to follow Mr Gandhi, a wave of people converged on the Congress leader who was surrounded by bodyguards, even as I was knocked into a narrow little ditch. Unable to move for several minutes, and out for the count, I sensed rather than saw dozens of people jumping over me.
This time, I was deeply reluctant to follow Mr Gandhi into the crowd. Less than a few minutes after he had walked unhesitatingly into the crowd at Sriperumbudur, there was a deafening sound as the bomb spluttered to life and exploded in a blinding flash. Everything changed.
A moment that, in my head, will always be frozen in time. It was exactly 10.21 pm.
…I had stayed back and was talking to Suman Dubey, Rajiv Gandhi’s media advisor, rather than following Rajiv Gandhi into the crowd. When the suicide bomber set off her bomb, the first thing I said – as I scanned the scene in front of me – was that this was no ordinary blast, quickly correcting my first reaction, “That sounds like a very odd firecracker” to a “No, no, that’s definitely a bomb.”
The silence once the bomb went off must have lasted less than a fraction of a minute.
But then all hell broke loose; the shrieks and wailing was the stuff of nightmares. None of the war coverage I had done before in Kuwait or Iraq, had prepared me for this. Every single person ahead of me had died in the blast. Bits of their clothing were still seared onto their bodies, but most of it had been burnt off. Their exposed flesh looked as if it had been roasted, blackened. It was a grisly sight. Raw, still bleeding from their wounds, many lay face up, a mangled mass of tangled bodies. Dead people. There were headless torsos, body parts, arms and legs... Some were barely alive; many were dying, stacked up against the grisly dead. It was macabre; a scene from hell.
As the panicked crowd around me and on the other side of the blast scene took to their heels, screaming as they came running up, some were coming straight at me as I tried to move towards the site of the blast. I was shoved this way and that as they ran past in all directions; a part of me noted that many were police and security personnel. In the ensuing melee, few cared, that as they pushed aside the flimsy bamboo barricades and broke through the rows of chairs, they were stepping over a clutch of the freshly dead.
Gone were the excited crowds that had been shouting and cheering only seconds before. In its place were the wails, the screams. As I ran forward, someone just a step behind me pulled me back just in time and said in Tamil, “Watch out, you’re about to step on somebody’s arm…” The revulsion, the horror was complete.
As I fought my way through to the blast site that was only a few feet away, stepping over the debris of the dead and the broken barricades, the one thought running through my head was the fate of Rajiv Gandhi. He was in there somewhere in that mass of bodies. How serious was it? Could he have survived? Could he be dead?
And then I saw his body. It’s not a sight that I will ever forget.
“Why is he just lying there, why doesn’t someone help him up? Someone should get him to a hospital, get him immediate emergency treatment,” I said out loud. “Where is the emergency medical team? Has someone called the hospital….?” No one was listening.
Excerpted with permission from The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Neena Gopal, Penguin Books.