When Neil Armstrong came to Delhi

Photo – At the Red Cross office,  New Delhi,  with a newspaper reporter, 1969.
I was then a reporter in The National HeraldNeil Armstrong was in New Delhi during a worldwide  goodwill tour following his historic  moonlanding.  I wasn’t particularly excited  when our news editor asked me to cover Neil Armstrong’s arrival at Delhi’s Palam airport.  Because,  I didn’t know enough of the man,  to be able to ask intelligent questions (there was no Internet then).  Besides Armstrong’s plane  was scheduled at New Delhi so late into the night that my report couldn’t be printed in the next morning paper, let alone get a Page One play.

Armstrong,  it appeared,  was given to keeping late hours for Indians .  He landed on the moon at an unearthly hour (IST),  keeping even Indira Gandhi awake till 4.30 a m.  We have Natwar Singh’s word  on this.  Incidentally, The National Herald brought out a special supplement on moonlanding,  a few hours after the regular morning edition had hit news stands.  Later when the U S astronaut  came on a goodwill visit to Delhi our news editor was keen on getting Armstrong arrival pictures.  And he arranged to send photographer Kishore to the airport. The news editor assigned a reporter as well, as an after-thought. This, then, was  how I come into the picture.

Our photographer, very familiar with the airport security and protocal people,  arranged for Armstrong to meet us at the VIP lounge on arrival.  But our meeting turned out to be brief and not so newsworthy.  A visibly tired Armstrong said he needed sleep more than anything else.  I didn’t get so much as a single usable ‘quote’.  No other newsman was at the airport.  So it was my exclusive non-story. Gave me, though, bragging rights with media colleagues.
I, however,  caught up with Armstrong later in the morning,  as he arrived at the Red Cross office at Rafi Marg  for an engagement. If I remember right, no formal press conference was scheduled during his Delhi stop-over, though the event managers gave the media plenty of photo-ops  with Armstrong  on various locations.  I can’t recall what we talked about  in the few minutes we had together at the Red Cross building.  If  the photograph (above) gives an impression that we were  engaged in  serious talk,  it was because Kishore asked for,  what he called  ‘talking’ pictures.   Armstrong wasn’t conversant enough with his  English when Kishore asked the astronaut  to pose for the camera,  in a talking mode.   I was trying to interpret  when Kishore took this photo (for my personal collection).  If his English was pappe-ish , Kishore’s  photography was very professional.  So newsworthy were  his  photographs that  the  Associated Press often tapped him for news photos.

Media photographers those days  had easy access to VIPs,  who often obliged them with retakes,  so that the media could  get the pictures they wanted.  Those were days when photographers used flash-gun.  I have heard  Kundanlal, a govt. photographer in the 50s,  recalling  an incident when he gave Nehru a chase.  Kundanlal taking photographs repeatedly   ignored Nehru’s signal to stop shooting.  The PM, in a bid to chase him away,  ran  after the photographer with his baton around the VIP tarmac.  The incident  happened then they were waiting to receive a visiting foreign dignitary at Delhi airport.