The two Bal Thackerays
Watching the tributes on TV and reading the newspaper comments, anybody who did not know much about Bal Thackeray could be forgiven for thinking that two different people had died. One was a Marathi-speaking avatar of Adolf Hitler. And the other was a Bombay-bred version of Mother Teresa. As commentators have pointed out, Thackeray was a deeply divisive and polarising figure. And his death has once again reminded us of the divisions he fostered and the contradictory sentiments he evoked.
I never held any brief for the politics of the Shiv Sena. At so many different levels, the Sena and its illegitimate offshoot, the MNS, represent all that is undesirable about Indian politics. And it is impossible for any rational person to support, let alone defend, many of Thackeray’s statements or actions: the bile he spewed against Muslims; the arbitrary restrictions on free speech imposed through violence; and the terrible 1992-3 communal riots that he was so proud of.
But here’s what I think the obituaries have missed. No matter whether you think of Thackeray as Hitler or Mother Teresa, there was one important respect in which he differed from most famous or influential people. From all accounts, there was no difference between the private and the public Hitler: he was a psychopath at all levels. Similarly, whether or not you approved of all of Mother Teresa’s actions, she was the same in all situations; what you saw was what you got.
I’ve always believed that the key to understanding Bal Thackeray lay in the fact that he was not some ideologically-driven, violent nutcase of the sort that his critics are now claiming. With Thackeray, what you saw was not always what you got. And just as what you got differed from year to year (his views and alliances kept changing) what you saw also depended on the situation you found him in.
I first met Thackeray in the late 1970s, long before he transformed himself into the Muslim-hating, Pakistan-bashing figure he later became. At that stage, he was a strictly Bombay phenomenon, the sort of chap who could bring the city to its knees for a couple of days by getting his Sainiks to beat up shopkeepers and taxi-drivers. But he was not much more than that. Certainly, it never occurred to us that his party would take office in Maharashtra in just over a decade.
But even then, there was always a distinction between the private Thackeray and the Senapati who addressed the cadres at Shivaji Park.
The private Thackeray was polite and hospitable (but no, he was never mild-mannered), liked good food and beer, was curious about the world, and like most people of his background, thrilled by the idea of foreign travel.
I remember spending an evening at Matoshree with my then-colleague, Rajni Bakshi (before she became an NGO-type) in the course of which he bored us senseless with stories about his trip to America, the highlight of which was a visit to Disneyland. We heard about his driver, who was a very nice man (“he was a neeger, of course”), about his admiration for Walt Disney (“he was a cartoonist, like me”) and then at tedious length about every Disney character he had shaken hands with: “First we met Mickey, then Minnie, and then Donald Duck was also there…” and so on till we were dropping off.
On another occasion, in 1981, he took me and my childhood friend, Chander Uday Singh, to Drumbeat, a restaurant in Tardeo owned by his son. Of course, because this was a Thackeray family enterprise, it was not entirely legit and the municipal corporation was threatening to close it down because it was an illegal operation. Thackeray was unfazed by the illegality of the establishment.
We ate a large meal of chicken Manchurian-type Chinese food, he drank beer and then, he peppered us with questions about the world at large.
Did we know such and such newsreader? He had heard she was very attractive. This was an exaggeration. Few of the DD newsreaders were bombshells in those days.
What was the Studio 29 disco? Was it worth going to? We told him, as gently as we could, that while nobody would refuse him entry, there would always be concerns that his ‘boys’ would burn the place down if the Senapati was not happy with the service. Besides, was he really into dancing? “Well, we throw stones, so I know the moves,” he laughed.
When I tell people these stories now, they always act as though I am making them up. (Which is why I have taken care to quote witnesses.) Could this really be the Bal Thackeray who Bombay feared so much? And besides, my more politically-correct friends often ask, what was I doing having dinner with this Fascist?
The answers are complicated. First of all, we must always remember that there were two Thackerays. Like some actor, Thackeray had an on-screen persona, which was ‘Emperor of Bombay’. But there was also an off-screen persona. At a human level, he could be funny, charming, and very good company.
I still remember many of the anecdotes that he kept dredging up from his seemingly inexhaustible fund of stories. There was the one about the law minister of Maharashtra who got so drunk at a party hosted by Rajni Patel that Thackeray had to offer to give him a ride in his own car. Sadly, the minister had lost control of his faculties and peed in Thackeray’s car. “My God, it took us months to rid the car of the smell,” he recounted. The next time the same minister got drunk at a party at the Oberoi, Thackeray resolutely refused to give him a ride.
Eventually, they found him a room in the hotel and let him spend the night in a drunken stupor (“I don’t know what he did to their
Critics will see Thackeray’s politics as being based on nothing more than opportunism, and to a large extent, I think they are right. But the best way to understand Thackeray is to see him as a smart and well-educated but essentially middle-class Maharashtrian who looked at all the things that made Bombay great and decided that he wanted his own share. The only route he could find was violence. And so he, quite cynically, used violence to force his way into the power centres of Bombay.
Bombay was the city of wealth and privilege. People like Thackeray never got a taste of that in normal circumstances. But once the Shiv Sena unions were in place and the goons were ready for action, Thackeray made sure that every industrialist in Bombay had no choice but to come and pay court to him. Even now, when you hear industrialists talk about him, they all act as though he was some all-powerful Godfather. Not bad going for a middle-class Maharashtrian, who would never have been allowed into their offices when he started out.
Bombay was the city of films and glamour. Thackeray, who was star-crazy (first Mickey Mouse and then Amitabh Bachchan) decided he wanted a piece of that. So, he started out by threatening movie stars and disrupting screenings. In no time at all, the stars made a beeline to Matoshree and began praising the many virtues they had suddenly discovered in the Senapati. And Thackeray responded as any Emperor of Bombay would. If the stars were sufficiently respectful, then he would do anything for them. But if they were not…
For all that, he forged warm and genuine relationships with many film people. He was a dedicated Amitabh fan. Even before the two men became great friends, Thackeray put up a photograph of an ambulance at Matoshree. I once asked him why the ambulance deserved such pride of place. “In 1982, when Amitabh was dying, this is the ambulance that took him to hospital,” he said proudly. After Bachchan got to know him better, Thackeray remained a loyal friend. He supported him when V.P.
Singh was persecuting him and later I would tease Thackeray that his beard emerged out of a desire to copy Amitabh’s new look.
So it was with Sunil Dutt. Though the Shiv Sena had started out by calling Sanjay Dutt a terrorist, Thackeray moderated his stance after Sunil Dutt called on him and asked for his help. Once Dutt had approached the Emperor, the Sena changed its position and Sunil Dutt later told me, “Bal Thackeray has done more for my family than anybody in the Maharashtra Congress.”
Even after he had become a national figure, Thackeray never lost his sense of humour or even his essential cynicism. Around a decade ago, I dragged him out of Matoshree and persuaded him to come to a TV studio to shoot an episode of Star Talk. While the audio checks were going on, I said to him, “I don’t know how you do it but after all these years you still look much the same.” He was unimpressed. “Yes,” he replied. “But you have become very fat.”
I imagine that interview is still floating around somewhere on the Net though I haven’t seen it myself for years. But I do remember one bit when I accused him of burning the shops of people who sold Valentine’s Day cards only because some deal to produce cards with his daughter-in-law had fallen through. “Not burnt,” he said. “We did not burn them. We destroyed them.”
And that, I guess, says it all. This was a man who played a role and played it to perfection. Once he was in character, he said all the things you would expect an Emperor to say. And then, when the shift was over and the make-up was off, he would be an entirely different person over a warm beer or (in later years) a glass of wine.
I don’t think there will ever be anyone quite like him again.