On Bal Gangadhar Tilak's birth centenary, stories of his childhood, how he moulded Pune's culture

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe
·5-min read

When Bal Gangadhar Tilak proclaimed, 'Swaraj ha mazha janmasdha hakka ahe, ani toh me milavnarch' (Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it), his words rallied an entire nation to rebel against the colonial regime and fight for the ultimate goal: freedom from imperial rule.

But long before Tilak was seen as a national hero, or established the Home Rule League, or edited two prominent newspapers €" Kesari and Mahratta, publishing scathing indictments of the British rule €" or wrote the Gita Rahasya while imprisoned at Mandalay, came his childhood and education, which moulded his personality and showcased the person he would go on to become. Though he is known for his political work, it is stories from his childhood that shape the foundation of his legacy and add colour to the portrait we have of him.

Tilak was a rebellious student and stood up for what he believed in, even though it would most often earn him the wrath of his teachers. There is a well-known anecdote about the time he was in school when a few of his classmates littered the classroom floor with groundnut peels and refused to own up when the crime was caught. Angry with the entire class, the teacher ordered all the students to clean up the mess. But Tilak vehemently refused.

"Me shenga khallya nahit, me tarfala uchalnar nahi (I did not eat the groundnuts, I will not pick up the peels.)," he declared.

Born in 1856 in Chikhali, a village in the coastal district of Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, Tilak moved to Pune following his father's transfer to the city. A ten-year-old boy at the time, his father tutored him in Mathematics and Sanskrit. Tilak would go on to earn great proficiency in both these subjects, graduating and subsequently teaching them at a local school in Pune.

It is said that he could calculate complex equations and sprawling mathematical problems without a pen and paper. He would often argue with his teachers about the importance of mental math, refusing to write down tables for homework, because according to him, tables were not to be written but to be memorised. He was strongly critical of the 'step-wise' method for solving sums as well, where students write down each step involved in the calculation.

His intelligence, stubbornness and penchant for argument isolated him from the herd, but he never succumbed to peer pressure. In his politics too, he was firmly convinced of his extremist policies, and the triumvirate Lal-Bal-Pal that he was part of did not hesitate to form a separate faction after the Indian National Congress split, following the 1907 annual meeting held at Surat.

Much of Tilak's life was spent in Pune. He studied at Deccan College, started schools under the Deccan Education Society and established the Fergusson College, one of Pune's most reputed educational institutes.

Today, his influence can be felt strongly in the city's pulse €" in the elongated Tilak Road (one of many in India); in the sarvajanik Ganeshotsav and Shivajayanti festivities, celebrations which he organised to nurture communal harmony; and in Kesari Wada, his home, nestled in the heart of the city. In Pune, he is remembered not only for his oratory and his Swadeshi and Boycott movements following the Bengal Partition, but also for such stories about his sharp wit and mischief that characterised his childhood.

Of note are Tilak's perspectives towards health and wellness. He once said, "If one attends to one's body as one does to one's mind from the age of 16 to that of 25, and if the physical strength thus stored up is not dissipated by gluttony or vice, one can stand any amount of hard, intellectual work till old age." It is said that he was a child with low immunity and would fall sick often.

Once, while in college, he accompanied his friends for a hike up the local fort Sinhagad €" a difficult climb. He barely made it to the top, and became a joke for his classmates. Unmotivated to learn about colonial poets like PB Shelley and John Keats, he flunked that particular school year, and used this time to get fitter and stronger. He was convinced, or so our grandparents have us believe, that in order to serve his nation, he must first work on being healthy, both mentally and physically.

This view would go on to serve him for a long time through his rigorous imprisonments. The years at Mandalay following the sedition charges levelled against him after his publication supported two revolutionaries, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, took their toll. Prisoners were served dirty, grimy food and ulcers broke out in his mouth. But he continued to work, and it was here that he wrote his magnum opus, the Gita Rahasya, an interpretation of the Karma Yoga of the Bhagvad Gita, and translated the entire text into Marathi.

Pune, and the rest of the country, is now geared up to celebrate Ganeshotsav, but within the confines of our homes, to maintain social distancing. Though the thought of fewer barricades, less crowded and cleaner streets is a temporary relief, there is a feeling that we will be breaking a decades-old tradition, put in place by a fierce journalist and politician who intended it to bring people together.

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