Bal Thackeray in his younger days (Photo: Gopal Shetty)
I knew Bal Thackeray rather well in a manner of speaking and then unknew him.
Throughout the 1980s when I was based in Bombay as a journalist there were numerous occasions, reasons and provocations to meet Thackeray because if there was anyone who held the city in the palm of his hand it was him.
“Mumbai is my city. I don’t know what Bombay is,” is what he once told me as part of his insistent campaign to what he said was aimed at liberating it from its colonial shackles.
“I don’t answer any questions about the city unless you refer to it by its real name, which is Mumbai,” he would say. And then for good measure he would appeal to my presumed Gujarati sensibilities by citing how even the Mumbai Samachar, Asia’s oldest daily newspaper established in July 1822, used the city’s real name in its own masthead.
Thackeray, who died on Saturday at age 86, was at once an improbable and real figure. I had a minor experience of that during one of my first meetings with him on June 1 or 2, 1984. The city was in the grip of a major Hindu-Muslim conflagration, which had begun in the nearby power loom town of Bhiwandi, some 55 kilometers away a month earlier. Inevitably, Thackeray was at the center of it all.
Virender Kapoor, the then editor of the Free Press Journal newspaper that I worked at, had assigned me to interview Thackeray, the chief of the rightwing pro-Hindu Shiv Sena party on the one hand and Indian Union Muslim League general-secretary G M Banatwalla on the other.
Before being ushered into his private office at his bungalow ‘Matoshree’ in the suburb of Bandra, I was told by one of his minders that visitors were expected not to show their backs to Thackeray when they left the room. Or in other words, they were expected to walk backwards as used to be the practice in the courts of ancient and medieval kings.
As a matter of detail, setting aside the more urgent issue of death and destruction in the city, I clarified with Balasaheb if I was expected to follow that courtesy because I did not plan to. He said it was not mandatory but many did so out of respect and, in any case, as a journalist he would not expect me to observe that. I thanked him for the clarification and said I had no intentions to do it anyway. The following were the interviews published as Point-Counterpoint on June 3, 1984.
Characteristically, Thackeray was unabashed and unapologetic in his utterances against Banatwalla and others. Banatwalla returned favor and, overall, it made for a great newspaper piece. Of course, we were heavily criticized at the time for fueling the controversy by juxtaposing the two men.
In one of his replies Thackeray said, “I have always maintained that anyone who has been living here and who has the good of the state, the sons of the soil and the nation, at heart are Maharashtrians. In India only Indians live and those who consider themselves otherwise have no business staying here. Those with extra-territorial loyalties have been proved more than once in the past like in the bursting of crackers when Pakistan wins a game of hockey or cricket against my country, should get lost.”
To which Banatwalla replied, “Thackeray has lost his mental balance. He has really lost his mind. Muslim loyalty is unimpeachable. There has not been a single instance of Muslim disloyalty to the country. In any case we Muslims do not need a loyalty certificate from the likes of Thackeray and his tribe.”
Thackeray was, of course, playing on his signature theme that there were Muslims in India who were more loyal to Pakistan even while living in India. It was an incendiary characterization that always prompted outrage.
I have several anecdotes to tell about the man who was clearly trapped in the grandiosity of his image, something I asked him about once. The question was to the effect whether he, once having created a certain image about himself and benefitted from it, found it hard to change it. His response was something like, “What you call an image is real. So I am not trapped in anything.”
I even asked him why he often sat in an ornate throne-like seat. “I fit well in it,” he replied and laughed. Arguably one of urban India’s most polarizing and provocative public figures Thackeray was essentially a provincial mind with a provincial worldview. His influence was mostly limited to the city of Mumbai but because it was over India’s largest metropolis and economic hub, he often came across as much larger than he really was.
Thackeray had a remarkable ability to galvanize the lumpen elements in the city and turn them into a fairly influential political force. “Asha communist bhashecha upayog karu naka (Do not use such communist construct),” he once said to me when I pointed out the growing lumpenization of the Sena.
On balance, there was a lot more to dislike about what Thackeray stood for and how he conducted himself than there was to like. However, as a cartoonist his was an extraordinary talent and often savage humor. With fewer political distractions Thackeray could have been a writer of some literary merit. As a political cartoonist I would rate him way above the much celebrated R K Laxman. I think Thackeray’s lines were much more defined and assured but then it is a matter of opinion.
During one of my more leisurely conversations I asked him whether he would rather have been a fulltime political cartoonist who occasionally indulged in politics than a fulltime politician who occasionally indulged in cartooning. “I do both. So there is no conflict,” he said, “Humor comes in handy as a politician and politics comes in handy as a cartoonist.”
I began this post saying I knew him rather well in a manner of speaking and then unknew him. Although unknew is not exactly a word (unknow is), what I meant was after leaving Bombay/Mumbai in 1989 I ceased to know him. One did keep track of the goings-on in his world but it was mostly second hand.
His death does remove Mumbai’s most rambunctious citizen who sometimes led her gently holding her hands but mostly the scruff of her neck.