A man of many hues, who could disagree, yet remain friends

Balasaheb Thackeray did not inherit wealth or landed property, but a fighting spirit from his father Keshavrao. Like his father, he too was a very effective speaker and wielded his pen bluntly.

His father was a journalist, a leading social reformer, dramatist, historian and also a cartoonist. He was one of the prominent leaders in the movement for the linguistic state of Maharashtra.

Nobody thought that his son would emerge as a political leader. A person who would later made his mark as a fiery speaker did not appear on a public platform until the formation of the state of Maharashtra. His cartoon weekly, Marmik, caught people's attention. But in the initial period, it was not political.

My first meeting with him had a strange background. Though I knew that Maharashtrians were suffering from some disadvantages, I held that it was an economic problem. But Thackeray made it a political one, and launched an organization, the Shiv Sena.

In 1969, the Shiv Sena was very volatile, culminating in a violent uprising. Dadar was in the eye of the storm along with some other areas. For about three days or more, people could not get milk or grocery. Shops were looted and civic life was at a standstill.

I was then editor of Maharashtra Times. I wrote a front page editorial calling for the military.

D V Gokhale was our news editor. As both Balasaheb and Gokhale had been in the Free Press Group, they were close friends. He said that both of us were to see Thackeray.

We went to see Thackeray, who was staying in an apartment near Shivaji Park. Thackeray's first few words were reassuring. He agreed with us that the agitation needed to be withdrawn.

The three of us prepared a draft and informally approached the government. The response was positive. Life in the city started coming back to normal.

Politically, we differed all the time and criticized each other. Nevertheless, an informal understanding developed between us that in spite of political differences, in personal meetings (which were few) no politics would be discussed. We talked about Mumbai in the old days, theatre and old movies and gardens.

I was not the only one with whom he kept personal relations despite political differences. Sharad Pawar and Thackeray were politically poles apart but had personal relations for a long time.

Because of his love for literature, music, painting, movies and theatre, he had a large friends circle whose political or social views he did not mind.

Some of our meetings were memorable, as coming into his element, he would mimic several individuals and narrate interesting anecdotes. This used to merrily go along with drinks and Chinese dishes.

One day, a call came from Thackeray, who inquired about Tamhane, our assistant editor, who had passed away. I told him that Tamhane used to be cautious about his health, taking care to consume soda regularly to keep his gas problem in check. Thackeray could not refrain. He said that Tamhane should not have taken soda without a strong drink.

I then asked him how it was that in spite of being non-vegetarian, several Kayasthas were very thin? Thackeray remarked that it was precisely because of this that several Kayastha girls preferred Brahmin boys. I was taken by surprise. I told him it was also the other way round.

Mrs Thackeray died suddenly. After a few days, I went to see him and took my colleague Asbe with me. Thackeray told us that during the days of the Ganesh festival, his wife went to several houses; and because of the strain, she collapsed. For a while, he became an atheist.

Then, changing the subject, he said that a few weeks ago he had presided over a function where a new book was released. He added that it was plagiarised, but he did not know that. He showed the pages that had been lifted from elsewhere.

In 1996, Thackeray called me at my residence and asked whether it was true that I was retiring soon. I said yes. He said that we would still be seeing each other, as I would be in Mumbai.

All those years when wrongly criticizing me, he used to say that I had an apartment in Churchgate, given by the late chief minister V P Naik. Now I pointed out that the apartment was owned by the Jains. Thackeray immediately said that I should have corrected him earlier. He also said that he would talk to the Jains and ask them to postpone my retirement and transfer the apartment in my name. I thanked him and told him that I was going to retire and my wife and I would be moving to the US to live with our daughters.

That was Thackeray sans politics.

govindtalwalkar@hotmail.com

(Govind Talwalkar is a veteran journalist.)

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