When Bal Thackeray’s throat ran dry

While on the subject of Bal Thackeray and drinks last week, I recalled an interesting incident that happened days after the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power in Maharashtra in 1995. Readers of my column ‘Anandan on Wednesday’ in the Bombay edition of the Hindustan Times will remember this for I have written about it in a different context but I thought the story was too tickling pink not to share with a wider readership.

Hiranandani is a famous name in Bombay, associated with builders. But Niranjan Hiranandani’s father came to fame much earlier as a doctor. He was the city’s most renowned ENT specialist for years before the Hiranandanis ever became a big name in construction.

So when we heard that Dr Hiranandani was throwing an ‘invitees only’ party for Bal Thackeray, all his family and a few select ministers at the Taj Gateway, we knew something was afoot. The Sena had come to power on the promise of free housing to Mumbai slum dwellers (it won all but one of the 34 seats from the city for that reason) and it had to be too much of a coincidence (that the father of a builder was throwing a party for Thackeray) not to have something to do with this free housing – builders stood to benefit enormously out of the scheme.

We were right, as we eventually discovered – the party had a guest list of 225; all were builders. I knew I had to gatecrash but needed some support. So I asked a friend from the Marathi press (yes, the very same who almost got beaten up by Thackeray’s goons as mentioned in my previous blog  ‘Are you a red light reporter?’) to come along because our readership was different and we could both get exclusives. We then decided to change into our evening best – she into a silk saree and a smattering of diamonds; I into a heavily embroidered salwar-kameez, my pearls and all the accessories I could find, trying to look as little like journalists as was possible. And we made our way upstairs like two mems who had nothing better to do than drink and dance all night.

But we stopped short just before we hit the ballroom – the invites were being checked and we didn’t have any. Rather than get into a fight with the ushers and get exposed as journalists, we scurried downstairs to think up a new strategy. And then we saw two bureaucrats, invited to the party, getting out of their cars – minus their wives. The two of us pounced upon them, clinging to one arm each of the two men as we started upstairs again, pretending to be deep in conversation – the bureaucrats held out their invites, the ushers thought we were their companions. We were in.

The Taj had decorated the tables with saffron tablecloths with white bowls of saffron roses and tiny white daisies all around. Thackeray was yet to arrive but we found Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and his Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar mingling among the guests. They were too polite to ask how we had got in; the hosts thought we were asked by the ministers. We sipped at our drinks – which were a choice between tomato juice, orange juice and pineapple juice.

When it was time for Thackeray to make a speech, Dr Hiranandani requested that he speak in English because “a lot of foreign guests are present”. Thackeray graciously obliged. Gate-crashing had been worth it, I discovered, when Thackeray began to reprimand the Hiranandanis. Used to downing warm Indian beer each evening (he had lately taken to red wine), he was fed up of the orange juice and tomato juice on offer through the evening.

“Dr Hiranandani,” he began in imperious tones. “The great ENT specialist of Mumbai, himself. ‘E’ is for ear and I can hear the beautiful music. ‘N’ is for nose and I can smell the wonderful food. And ‘T’ is for throat — but my throat is running dry!”

There was a stir and a commotion as Dr Hiranandnai sheepishly admitted he had taken care not to serve alcohol “because some ministers and government people are present. They do not drink.”

“I do not agree,” said Thackeray. “Who says they do not drink?”

“That is our experience,” said Dr Hiranandani.

“Not any more,” replied Thackeray. Then looking straight at the Chief Minister, he called across the room in Marathi, “*Kai re*, M….(using a nick name)? *Tu peetos nahi kaa*? (What, M..,.? Don’t you drink?)’’

Joshi looked as though he wanted to get under the floorboards and disappear from sight. He could neither nod nor shake his head. He stood stiffly, with a frozen smile as no words would come to him. “See,” said Thackeray, brightly. “He drinks. So do all the other ministers. So bring on the champagne.’’

As the champagne popped and toasts were raised, one of the bureaucrats present there raised his glass in the direction of Thackeray and commented, “At least he has no hang-ups. He may have a hangover tomorrow, but he really has no hang-ups.’’

But apart from appreciation of the fact that Thackeray made no bones about his political incorrectness, that evening also brought home to me the fact that I had never seen any minister drink in public before – Joshi and his men had only been trying to keep up the tradition but Bal Thackeray soon put paid to that. (Some weeks later when Navalkar got caught (in a camera) holding a glass of champagne at an airline launch and that created a furor, he tried to pass it off as lemon juice!)

And for all that Thackeray had spoken about Sharad Pawar’s penchant for drinking Scotch each evening a few years earlier, I realised I had never seen the Maratha warlord with anything more than a glass of orange juice (or aam pana during summers) in all those years. When I did finally catch him downing glass after glass of whisky (double pegs) some years later, much water — or should I say alcohol? — had flowed under the bridge. But that is another story.

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