A gang of toughs blocked the road in the foothills of the Himalayas just as the bus approached a hill village this afternoon. The men ordered the driver to empty the bus of passengers.
"Haven't you heard the news?" they shouted. "What news?" the driver asked. "Indira has been shot. All traffic must stop to mark the peoples' sorrow and shame." There were riots in the towns, the men said; it wasn't safe to go on. "Do you have any Sikhs inside?" a burly man asked, and climbed the rickety steps onto the bus to see for himself. There were none.
The young men who had stopped us were students from a nearby college, members of the youth wing of the Congress Party, out looking for trouble. The passengers filed out of the bus and joined the villagers who filled the roadsidetea shop, a rough wooden shed. The villagers had surrounded a frightened, whimpering man.
"So now you are crying," said one. "The last time you were here, you said she was no good. Why are you weeping?
"I am crying for her," he sobbed.
"You are crying because you are frightened."
An official appeared and tried to reason with the young men who had stopped the bus. It was true that the radio said Indira Gandhi had been shot, the official told them. But there was nothing to indicate that she was dead. He said he had just talked to a man who had arrived from the town for which the bus was headed. There were no riots there or anywhere else. The bus must proceed.
The students let us go, reluctantly. A hill woman on the back seat began a loud lament: "What will we poor people do if she dies? She was our mother, sister, leader. The rich will pound us into pulp, squeeze us dry."
The wealthy farmer sitting next to me had gone to school in tow and spoke English. He had been talking to me during the night and had declared himself a supporter of the Janata Party. Indira Gandhi was sure to be thrown out in the January election and good riddance, he had said. She had perverted the government, had appointed corrupt sycophants as ministers and was determined to perpetuate the family's dynastic rule. The state of emergency she had declared in the mid-'70s had been a dictatorship pure and simple. The compulsory sterilization of men had been an abomination which shamed India in the eyes of the whole world.
Now he spoke again. Of course it wasn't her fault. It was the overzealous officials' fault. She meant it for the best.
The bus was stopped three more times on the way to town, and the passengers were made to disembark on the outskirts. The streets were empty and silent. The shops were closed, their shutters down. In the town center, small hushed groups stood in the market square below the clock tower. I asked a man about the latest news. There was othing more in the broadcasts from Delhi. (The shooting had taken place in the morning, and it was now 6 p.m.) The wildest rumors were flying around, he said. Then he whispered into my ear: "She's no more."