A love-hate relationship

“You used to be such a good girl! What’s happened to you in the last month or so?” Bal Thackeray once asked me sometime in the mid-1990s.

But if I had to be a ‘good girl’ of his definition, it would mean I was supporting all his fascist and impossible policies against Muslims, South Indians, North Indians, et al. Now Thackeray had discovered that that was not so. I was going for his jugular and exposing his various duplicities. For example, during the riots of 1992-93, after the Babri Masjid was demolished, he caused the deaths of many Muslims and then called for a secular monument in Ayodhya in its place rather than a temple that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP had wanted. That was because he discovered that despite massacring the minorities, Muslims who were angrier with the Congress for having used them but not protected them against enemies like the Shiv Sena thought it prudent to make friends with the enemy of their new-found enemy and bring the Sena to power just that once in Maharashtra.

There were other examples. While Thackeray always said he was afraid of no one or nothing, and never went back on his word, in fact he did. He claimed credit, wrongly, for the demolition of the Babri Masjid when he knew Shiv Sena leaders had walked out of Ayodhya a day before December 5, 1992 after a petty quarrel with the BJP over lack of appropriate accommodation facilities on par with the BJP and the VHP’s own leaders. They were not present in the temple town when the Babri Masjid domes were brought down by Bajrang Dal and VHP workers. And while he stated he was proud of those Shiv Sainiks who had destroyed the mosque, he quickly backtracked when the designated court in Allahabad probing the demolition summoned him to give evidence. He then placed the blame squarely on ‘cowardly’ leaders of the BJP who “did not have the courage to own up to their deeds” and said, he had only said, ‘lf’. That is, ‘if’ his sainiks had indeed brought down the mosque then he could only be proud of them. “That does not mean they brought it down,” he said to escape the consequences of his own boastful claims.

Now Thackeray, unlike his son and nephew, Uddhav and Raj, had some English, educated as he was by his father, Prabodhankar Thackeray, who was a great admirer of William Makepeace Thackeray, the India-born British writer of novels like Vanity Fair. Prabodhankar even changed the spelling of his name from the original ‘Thakre’ to imitate the British writer’s and Thackeray could follow basic English. But he missed all the nuances and that gave him the impression that sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek references were actually an exhibition of support for his policies. Then his lawyers got into the act to tell him how much damage the English language media was doing him while he let the reporters go unchallenged.

When he called me over to Matoshree, his residence, to express that bewilderment, he had my then newspaper, The Indian Express, folded to the page where my story had appeared. It was underlined in green and red and he was reading my own words back to me to express how disappointed he was that I had turned into a ‘bad girl’!

“I am what I always was,” I told him. “You are just looking at me with different eyes today.”

Things were never the same between us again and ever since I have had a love-hate relationship because even through his hatred for journalists like me, he did acknowledge that he continued to speak with me and give me interviews because I quoted him correctly and never out of context. He much preferred to speak to a hostile journalist who quoted him correctly than a friendly one who did not get his context, he said. For my part, I bitterly disagreed with him when he called for the disenfranchisement of Muslims so that they could not influence the results of various elections and tore the Sena tiger apart for bringing personal issues into the nation politic: he was disappointed that Muslims had swung back to the Congress by 1999 and had also fought with some Bollywood personalities from the community who refused to pay obeisance to him before the release of each film they might have made.

I had also pointed out how he could rage against criminality by attacking notorious don Dawood Ibrahim and then hold up Arun Gawli as “our don” against “their don”, bringing a Hindu-Muslim angle into sheer crime. Then while he raged against Dawood, he could still host Pakistani cricketer Javed Miandad whose son had married the don’s daughter and see no contradiction in terms in that act.

But, of course, when he avowed that Muslims loyal to Pakistan should pack their bags and seek Pakistani citizenship, I could not fault him for calling for the loyalty of all Indian citizens to India!

The list could go on forever. But as Balasaheb lies fighting for his life today, I cannot but help recall the fond times when he served me coffee and bhajias after a particular interview and I am trying to forget the hateful ones when he abused me personally in bathroom terms with the kind of words that no one could have tolerated.

So I will be the so-called ‘good girl’ of his imagination today and wish him a speedy recovery. Though his body may be weakened by a debilitating illness, I can see his spirit is as fine as ever. Without the kind of hype and farce being played out over his illness today, just last week he had had a similar crisis of health. He recovered quickly to snap back at his doomsayers, “Those who say I am under ventilator should know I am still capable of putting hundreds like them under their own ventilators!’’

Yes, he could still prove to be the proverbial cat with nine lives!

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