National Interest: Through his wine glass, darkly

Was Balasaheb Thackeray a mass leader or a mafioso? The truth is, you will find his followers and detractors only describe him in extremes. But both will agree on one thing, that he was truly an original.

I learnt how much of an original he was when, in a 'National Interest' article more than a decade ago, I described him and his party as mafiosi. My phone rang late that Saturday evening as I sat with my family at dinner in Baan Thai restaurant (shut down in 2005) in the basement of New Delhi's Oberoi. It was a call from Balasaheb in Mumbai. I went out looking for better signal and braced myself for a diatribe.

But the voice at the other end was dripping charm. "Of all the people who abuse me, Shekharji, you write most delightfully", said Balasaheb.

"Thank you, Balasaheb", I said, relieved. "So what are you doing for me for abusing you so delightfully?"

He offered me dinner the following Thursday at Matoshree, suggested I bring along my wife and asked if we were vegetarian or teetotallers. And when he was told we were neither, he warmed up again.

"Aap Gupta ho kar bhi yeh sab kuchch kartey hain?" he asked.

"Jab aap Thackeray ho kar itna kuchch kar sakte hain...", I said.

We resumed that conversation at his home the following Thursday, Uddhav and his wife Rashmi in attendance and their still small children playing in the family living room. Also present was a party MP and loyalist, B.K. Desai, whose only contribution was to nod furiously in affirmation whenever Balasaheb spoke. Much of the conversation was on expected lines. Until we asked, pointing at his framed picture with Michael Jackson, what he thought of him. And if he also thought skin was peeling off from his face. "That I don't know", he said. But his eyes lit up as he told us his favourite MJ story.

... contd.

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