‘Don’t you know what a french letter is?’

Uddhav Thackeray was recently reported to have called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh an unpardonable name but now it turns out it was only the crowds who used the word `hijra’ and Uddhav merely said he “felt bad that they had called Dr Singh a eunuch”. Very clever. And he might well get out of it. But his father was always direct and there were no obfuscations ever about his abuses.

I should know. Because Bal Thackeray has called me an elephant, a buffalo, a hippo, a rhino (he pronounced it reeno) and so many other animal names over the years. Of course, he always appended a “she” to those animal names. Readers will note that those animals have considerable weight – and since, like Oprah Winfrey, I have seasonally fluctuated between plump or somewhat thinner all my life, I knew Thackeray meant to make me feel awful by giving such offence.

But then he had similar names for all his political rivals. He used to call Sharad Pawar a “maidyancha pota” (a sack of flour), also for his considerable girth, at the height of their rivalry in the Nineties. But towards the end of that decade it got so bad (and the words of abuse even worse) that Pawar shot back by saying Thackeray was city-born and bred and as a rural rustic he (Pawar) could come up with more colourful abuses for Thackeray than the Sena tiger could ever fathom.

But Pawar was reacting not just to Thackeray’s abusive language towards him – the Sena supremo had by then begun to pick on Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka (words of abuse umentionable), his language full of sexual innuendo. And since Pawar was still with the Congress at that time, he felt compelled to respond in kind.

Thackeray shut up soon thereafter – too afraid of what Pawar might come up with. That was the second time I realised that he was a bully who retreated under pressure. The first time I discovered that he was really somewhat of a coward was more private and personal.

Bal Thackeray makes a saree of his shawl to mimic Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Nashik in 1998.

Bal Thackeray makes a saree of his shawl to mimic Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Nashik in 1998.

I had been writing a series of stories on the Shiv Sena at that time and had stumbled upon some of his old-time friends and supporters, by then estranged. One of these was Madhav Deshpande who told me that he was one of the co-founders of the Sena (along with three others, including Bal Thackeray). And the only reason Thackeray became so big was because he always had a way with words. “None of us had the turn of phrase that Balasaheb had. So we pushed him forward at all our meetings. His language attracted thousands of youth. The next thing we knew, Thackeray had grabbed the party and declared himself as the sole leader.’’

I thought that an interesting bit of information but Thackeray saw red. He sent for me and I was shown to his sanctum sanctorum at Matoshree which I always thought of as his Diwan-e-Khaas. He called for coffee and dismissed his aides. Then after a little bit of small talk, he geared up for the offence.

“So, Madam,” he said in his most derogatory tones. “You seem to be interested only in used French Letters!”

And he waited for me to crumple. I should have. I would have — if I had understood what he meant. I must admit to a certain amount of gaucheness even at that age and although I had travelled the world – including spending a year in Paris – strangely, I had never come across those words. And so that extreme insult passed over my head.

I could see his disappointment at the lack of impact – and also that he still wanted to insult. So he simplified the terminology. “You don’t know what a French Letter is? It means a condom. And, Madam, you seem to be only interested in used condoms.”

That left me in no doubt at all and I had just a split second to react – I could either swallow that insult and lose my self-respect (also, never be on equal grounds again) or I could protest and risk losing my life in the process. I decided on the latter.

I sprang to my feet, slung my bag across my shoulder and said, “What do you mean by that Mr Thackeray? I do not take that kind of nonsense from anybody, least of all from a ha’penny-tuppenny (well, if he could confuse me with words, so could I!) politician like you. So you better watch out. And apologise right now!”

I was sure I would be thrown out of Matoshree quite unceremoniously – and that would be lucky – or else I could be beaten up or killed. For I was alone in the Tiger’s Lair and no one knew I had come visiting. All that I wanted at that moment was a last look at my mother — and to say Goodbye!

But then I saw a miracle unfold – almost, literally, like a balloon running out of gas. Thackeray shrunk back in his chair and, I swear, he was suddenly smaller by a size or more. “Oh, sit down, please. Please sit down,” he said now in his most placatory tones. “I was not calling you names. I meant it for that other fellow.”

I knew that was not quite true but I accepted the olive branch he was offering for sheer reasons of survival. By then the coffee had arrived and he offered to get some bob pins from his daughter-in-law – my hair was falling over my eyes and I had a fine layer of sweat on my brows. “Are you feeling too hot? Should I set the ac lower for you?”

I had still not cooled down when I stormed into my editor’s office two hours later with this tale of outrage. “Well, at least you’ve lived to tell the tale,” is all he said.

“And not bad, eh? I would never have thought Thackeray knew what a French Letter meant!”

Well, I’m still glad I didn’t.

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