From the halls of Rashtrapati Bhawan to everyday life – she handled the transition with class.
I am almost 30, though I’m told I don’t look it. I’ll be getting married soon, something my grandmother, my nani, always wanted to witness. Sadly, two years ago she passed away. She would have enjoyed my wedding, even though I know it will be nothing compared to hers.
On 11th May 1960, Vimla Prasad, my grandmother, had the privilege of tying the knot at Rashtrapati Bhavan - the President’s residence. In case you haven’t guessed by the name, she was the granddaughter of Dr. Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President. She married Krishna Kumar Saksena. Her life, along with her surname, was about to change. From politicians to family members, countless people gathered for what was the President’s sixth grand daughter’s wedding. The splendid halls of Rashtrapati Bhawan were lit up for the occasion. The invitations sent out strictly read 'no gifts allowed' by the order of the President. Any that came, were returned straight away.
Nani on her wedding day
It wasn’t until middle school that I realised my family lineage. That’s when I started bombarding her with questions. Of course as I grew up other things took precedence. We all got busy with our lives. But whenever we spoke about it, she would beam with joy as she told us of her days as the President’s granddaughter. Days that included playing with her sisters and cousins in the huge gardens of Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Nani (2nd from right), in the Mughal Gardens
She had the fortune of meeting Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru was a regular visitor, as were other prominent figures. She was entrusted with duties of receiving Presidents and first ladies, even the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin. She had also been featured in magazines for her performances in plays & her antics in horse-riding. A glamorous life. One that I can only dream of. But she lived it. She would fondly recall meeting foreign dignitaries like Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy and countless PMs and presidents. She once told me how the Maharaja of Jaipur, Bhawani Singh, taught her how to drive. He would place a matchbox on the road and ask her to drive as close as possible to it without running over it.
Nani receiving the then US President, Dwight Eisenhower
But she would tell me how humility was the most important thing she was taught by her elders. The entire family believed that being simple was more important. She often mentioned how her grandfather prioritised education. They all went to good schools and colleges. She herself went to Delhi University.
The stories are endless. To her, it was just a huge house where she had immense fun with her brothers and sisters. She was very naughty as a child, from what I’ve heard. She would often recall how Dr. Prasad struggled during India's fight for independence and what the family went through during troubled times. He even went to jail. The letters he sent from there, she kept safely all her life. I’m sure I’ll find a few if I rummage through her stuff. His dedication towards the country was rewarded as he went on to become the first President of the nation. The entire family moved to the presidential abode. Suddenly they were all the president’s grandchildren, living with a man the entire country looked up to.
On horseback, living the glam life
She would tell us tales of how brilliant he was. Once in an examination, he had to answer 3 out of 5 questions. He answered all and wrote at the bottom that the examiner can check any of the 5. Rather than him being President, she was more proud of the fact that he took only 25% of his salary. He would hardly accept gifts from others and would return anything that was expensive. Something she practiced in her life as well. Her prized possessions weren’t expensive gifts. But smaller things, like a booklet signed by all the foreign dignitaries who had visited India. Or a special stamp made in her grandfather’s honour.
For everybody else the walls of Rashtrapati Bhawan holds History. But for her they held memories. Many years later, after they had vacated the premises, the entire family reunited in Rashtrapati Bhavan for a book launch on their grandfather's life. It was 3rd December, 2013. His birth anniversary. She saw his photo in the large hall, was on the verge of tears, but held her own and paid her respect just like she did when he was around. Later that day she told me that the nostalgia was overwhelming.
During Baba’s illness
Things changed for her after marriage. She gave birth to two daughters. The older one is my mother. She would always follow her Baba’s ideals. Simple living and better thinking. She wasn’t given any riches, but just a good learning at home. And because of that she said that she was lucky, not to be the president’s granddaughter, but to have such a humble & loving grandfather.
I am one of the great-great-grandchildren, along with countless cousins. We never fancied any special treatment or recognition. But we are proud to be related to him. Just like my Nani was taught to be humble we were told the same. She was with me for 26 years and she loved me every single day of those. I know she still watches over me.
With Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko of Japan
Words are not enough to describe the experience of being her grandchild. Watching her narrate all the incidents of the past was wonderful. It is not every day that you come across somebody who has led such a different life, let alone your own grandmother.
She may have left us, but the stories still ring my ears. What I wouldn't give to hear her talk about those days once again, or maybe just scold me for doing something stupid or spoil me with another beautifully hand-knitted sweater that I would only wear once but keep forever with other priceless memorabilia in my cupboard.
There have been countless times I have thought of writing about her, about her life, about the love that she spread. I hope I have done justice to you Nani.
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By Akarsh Mehrotra
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