Sena supremo Bal Thackeray passed away last afternoon after days of speculations and wild guesses about his deteriorating health and rumours about the announcement of his inevitable demise. I was at work in our Wadala office. By the time the news reached us and we packed our bags and rushed out of the premises, Mumbai had almost shut down. The only cab driver who agreed to ply and ferry me to my house in faraway Thane made it clear that he was risking his life and limb to do so and that he was obliging me only because I am a woman. It didn’t help that he belonged to the community that is currently being targeted by the Sena and the MNS. He was careful not to express his opinion restricting it to one comment: “It’s going to be tough the next three days. Everything will shut down. Some parts of Mumbai will burn.” He seemed sure of the last.
As a kid, naïve and impressionable as I was, I thought of Thackeray as the saviour of the Marathi manoos and Marathi culture. Though born in Mumbai, I am a Mangalorean and though I spoke chaste Marathi having been brought up on the outskirts of the very Maharshtrian Hindu Colony at Dadar, I worried that Thackeray and his clan would oust me one day for not being born into a Marathi family. I got a firsthand taste of Thackeray’s brand of communalism, when, my maternal uncle, dark as he was, and who didn’t look like a Maharashtrian, was brutally assaulted by Sena workers as he alighted from a BEST bus, at the peak of the Sena’s anti-Madrasi campaign, for being what he wasn’t. He nursed a severe head injury for days and worried about venturing out of the house, not to mention looking more Marathi, blending in with the sons of the soil and making himself inconspicuous as he eked out a living in the Maharashtrian capital. Mumbai was Bombay then.
When Thackeray called for a bandh, you knew not to venture out of the house as his loyal followers would without doubt be on a rampage. He had to just raise his hand, and his wish was their command. Somewhere down the line, as I grew up, Thackeray shifted his gaze from the Madrasis to the Muslims. From being the protector of Maharashtrians, he was now christened Hindhridaysamrat. Most came to believe that it was only because he and his Sena were around that Hindus were spared the horrors that would otherwise have visited them, courtesy the minority community. The owner of a shop I frequented at Mulund where I stayed then, told me in hushed tones that the protection came at a price. But that, he said, was acceptable. After all, he wanted to be spared if ever a situation arose, where establishments like his would be attacked.
I must confess though, that I admired Thackeray’s oratorial skills. If you were not on your guard, it was easy to get carried away by his vitriol and then at the end of the speech realise that you had almost been conned into agreeing with him, when you were clearly not in sync with his views. What I also appreciated was that he didn’t give a damn when he called a spade a spade and though his remarks on other political leaders would be unsparingly personal and often not in good taste, I couldn’t deny his quick wit and sense of humour. As he aged and greyed, I saw his personal style change. The beard grew longer, the clothes acquired a saffron hue and he began wearing rudraksha beads. Despite myself I came to believe that he would always be around. Just as I thought that J R D Tata and Pu La Deshpande would be. Invincibility is thrust upon those who are placed on a pedestal. When he talked of being an admirer of Hitler, it amused me, because he was too emotionally fragile in his personal life to be as dictatorial or authoritarian as he would have liked everyone to believe. From ‘insiders’ I heard stories about how he wept easily, how attached he was to his family and friends, despite the many differences he had with them, and how generous too. A couple of Sainiks I know swore that he had supernatural qualities – that if you were lucky to be blessed by him, you would be on the path to prosperity.
A few years ago, we had planned a feature on ‘Childhoods’ for the women’s magazine I edit: New Woman. My team jotted down a lot of names, people whose childhoods we thought would interest our readers. I came up with Bal Thackeray’s name and we realised that we knew very little about his childhood. What was it that shaped his thoughts and life? What memories did he have of his childhood? My colleague Indrani took up the assignment. When she called his residence, she was politely given her first lessons in the Sena brand of protocol and expected behaviour. When she asked his secretary whether Mr Bal Thackeray would agree to the interview, he admonished her gently in Marathi: ‘Balasaheb mhana. Say Balasaheb.” When she inquired further when he was out of Bombay at that moment, he was quick to correct her, again in Marathi: “Mumbai mhana. Say Mumbai.” When she met the man himself, she expected to be intimidated but was pleasantly surprised at his warmth. After going through an issue of New Woman, which he chose to call Navin Bai, the literal Marathi translation of the title, his eyes took on a faraway look and he told Indrani: “I have forgotten that I was ever a child. That was so long ago, but now that you’re asking me about it I shall even crawl for you like one.” The date and time were set for the interview which unfortunately, never happened because Balasaheb was summoned to attend to more pressing political matters. I myself never met the man but whenever he made a controversial statement, I couldn’t help but smile at the way he seemed to enjoy being a rabble-rouser, stirring the hornet’s nest, whenever life got a bit boring.
My septuagenarian mother is a huge admirer of the Sena chief and is mourning at the moment. It was at her behest that we subscribed to Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece though I cringed every time a friend who spotted it looked at me disapprovingly. Lest I be branded a saffron soul, I took great pains to clarify that its presence, in fact, emphasised my secular credentials and that we had a democratic household, where everyone was entitled to his or her own views. As I watch the weeping sea of humanity that has gathered to pay its last respects to the departed leader, it is obvious that the man touched innumerable hearts. Who will inherit his mantle? Only time will tell. Love him or hate him, there can be no other. I shall say Jai Maharashtra, Jai Hind to that!