Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bal Thackeray & The Face-reader

By Manuwant Choudhary

Ever since the death of Bal Thackeray I have been feeling a bit uneasy but not because Bal Thackeray died but how he died.

This is so because 14 years ago I wrote an article that Bal Thackeray will not fall to a fanatics bullet but rather he would die of a heart attack.

At the time I was the Chief Reporter of the Afternoon Despatch & Courier and must be among the few journalists who never sought an interview with Bal Thackeray.

Early one morning I was informed by the receptionist that someone had come to see me so when I went to meet the guest I was surprised - my guest looked unusual - not the common man... bijli, sadak, paanee kind.

He wore a red-maroon robe, was darkish and had unkept rough hair - a sadhu or a tantrik - and he wore the rurakhsha that Bal Thackeray also carried.

But why would someone like that want to to meet a secular journalist?

His appearance could scare you so I looked closer and the sadhu was in fact young...maybe mid 30's...and he had large dark eyes and I decided to hear him out.

He told me he was a face-reader and that he was different from other astrologers or tantriks because he never took money from his customers at first but he would return when his prophecies would come true.

And then his clients would reward him suitably.

With him he carried a large register and in it he had written statements from eminent persons whose future he had foreseen.

He said he was `scientific' in his approach and wanted to keep a record of face-reading.

So in jest I asked him whether he had read Bal Thackeray's face and he replied `Yes'.

He asked me what I wanted to know.

And again just like that I asked him how would Bal Thackeray die?

And he replied. "Bal Thackeray will not be killed. He will die of a heart attack."

So when Bal Thackeray died I remembered the face-reader...

 I also reminisced my days as a cub reporter in Bombay.

The Shiv Sena - Bal Thackeray's party - was in power but it was Bal Thackeray who called the shots and we called it the `remote-controlled' government.

The governments decisions were in fact taken by one man - Bal Thackeray - so even reporters from English dailies had to read Bal Thackeray's newspaper - The Saamna - to find out what the Shiv Sena government would do next week.

I had already seen what Hate Politics can do to a city and as students we saw Bombay go up in smoke in the communal riots.

I have been chased by both Hindu and Muslim mobs in the lanes near the Metro cinema where we had gone out to get something to eat.

So I did not really care for India's politicians.

But I have tried to have an open mind and talk to even those whom I don't like.

Once I even helped Shiv Sainiks.

A group of Shiv Sainiks wanted to see me and again I was surprised so I asked them what brought them to me.

And they told me that they had some problems and they had actually gone to Matoshree to meet Bal Thackeray and there they met a senior journalist from India Today who advised them to see me.

So I asked them what was their problem and they said that the Shiv Sena government had destroyed their temple !

And the story took me to their homes near the Arthur Road prison.

The Shiv Sainiks belonged to the dalit community - India's lowest caste-  and it was they who kept the city clean.

But the conditions they themselves lived in were terrible.

10 persons slept in a single room and the public toilets were appalling.

Their leader Bal Thackeray had never visited them.

And they took me around their homes with the great respect and affection.

For a day I was Bal Thackeray !

In a restaurant they bought me a cold drink and told me how they became Shiv Sainiks.

Then they showed me a small temple the Shiv Sena government had destroyed.

As we stood there suddenly we saw Sanjay Dutt - the actor charged under the arms act for keeping and AK 47 - going into prison for his daily court appearance.

And you would imagine people running to meet Sanjay Dutt.

But the Shiv Sainiks just stood there and instead shouted , "arre Sanju idhaar aana..."

And Sanjay Dutt lankily walked all the way to meet us.

The Sainiks introduced me to Sanjay Dutt and Sanjay promised to pitch in to rebuild their temple.

Not the big industrialists but there were the honourable few who stood up to the might of Bal Thackeray.

Among them was my editor Behram Contractor.

Ofcourse, as an editor he would be worried when we did anti-Bal Thackeray stories because it was known that the Shiv Sena mobs would attack newspaper offices.

But he never stopped us from doing the stories.

And the stories would be carried prominently.

Bal Thackeray could be cruel in other ways too.

Like when a Muslim Sheriff of Bombay Mr. Khorakiwalla went to meet Bal Thackeray along with Bombay's editors to request him to stop his mobs from rioting and killing innocent people of Bombay, Bal Thackeray asked Mr. Khorakiwalla to pick up the stone next to his chair.

The Sherriff picked up the stone and Bal Thackeray told him, "Its from the Babri Masjid."

The Sherriff Mr. Khorakkiwalla is a strong personality and while leaving the Matoshree (Bal Thackeray's home) told Bal Thackeray that his home was encroaching on public space and if he did not remove the encroachments they would be demolished.

Bombay died when an entire city feebly accepted their new name Mumbai, without even a fight.

I felt sad.

Bombay was a great city made of great people.

How could they accept everything what Bal Thackeray says and get on with business.

Our editor did put up a fight and in our reports we would avoid using the word but rather call it the `city'. The Afternoon address at the rear still said Bombay.

The mornings were a challenge because coming up with headline news every morning is not really easy even in a place like Bombay with all its rain and problems.

So one morning as I got read I overheard on my landlords black & white TV a Doordarshan newsreader saying there was  a central government notification that people were free to call Bombay as Bombay.

As I got into the newsroom and tried to make a copy, something unusual happened.

My editor entered and this is something he never does but he asked me, "Manu what is the headline today?"

I showed him what I was writing and he made me get up and took my chair and wrote in his Busybee style...


The then Prime Minister Deve Gowda had secret parleys with Bal Thackeray and was visiting Bombay that day and when he addressed a press conference some journalists waved copies of the Afternoon newspaper.

It completely ruined the Prime Minister-Bal Thackeray meeting.

Bal Thackeray was quite false in many ways..but he enjoyed the trappings of power even when he was out of power.

He always made his speeches in Marathi and we journalists were expected to know Marathi.

But I did not know the language.

I almost lost my job.

I was asked to cover a Bal Thackeray presser and it was in Marathi.

Some kind journalists told me Bal Thackeray gives English interviews only to the BBC !

I tried my best to understand Bal Thackeray, minus the expletives, and wrote my piece.

Luckily, my report and the Times of India report looked similar.

I got to keep my job.

I never liked the Shiv Sena brand of politics.

Politics through hatred and fear.

So when Ramesh Kini was killed and Raj Thackeray, the nephew of Bal Thackeray, accused of the murder, it was a story that needed guts.

And I did my bit.

Its not easy to work under real threats but when I did the Ramesh Kini story even Shiv Sainiks helped me to translate Kini's Marathi letter into English.

I knew the Shiv Sena would lose the next elections.

But I have often thought about the face-reader and how Bal Thackeray would die.

I am a non-believer.

So once I shared this story with a senior journalist Mr. Ashok Desai and after hearing me he softly replied, "Extraordinary Co-incidents!"

Co-incidents or not but are we really supposed to have all the answers?

Like what happens after death?

Have Bal Thackeray and Kasab gone to heaven or to hell....or they are just around...laughing....because their kind of politics and hatred and brutality is not dead.

Its very much alive.

1 comment:

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