He thought beyond obvious

Pritish Nandy

India, Nov. 18 -- Bal Thackeray was my first friend when I arrived in Bombay in the winter of 1982. Thackeray disapproved of Bombay and called it Mumbai. But then he disapproved of many things, good and bad.

Our views were as divergent as could be. I had come from Calcutta, was 29, struggling to bring change into one of India's largest media houses, with no clear strategy but an open mind. Thackeray was in his forties, a charming, clean shaved man, witty, with a wicked sense of humour and love for warm beer and the occasional cheroot.

We took to each other instantly. I loved the way he made me laugh and he found in me a cheeky if somewhat arrogant young man who had no interest in deifying him and would constantly argue over issues he thought were clear and settled. I think that's what brought us together, the fact that I took nothing for granted. Not even our friendship.

Some years later, when he was at his angriest best and everyone described him as the man who ran Mumbai, I did a cover story with him for The Illustrated Weekly of India. It was called The Cartoonist. For that, I always believed, was the best part of him. Curiously, this was one thing we both agreed upon. So I persuaded Tyeb Badshah, a movie star photographer of that time, to do the photo shoot. We got some great pictures even though Thackeray had expressed reservations about Tyeb. Why a movie star photographer? Shall I have to pose? I promised him some great pictures and no make up. But yes, he would have to pose I warned him. I did not want Balasaheb, the politician who everyone knew. I wanted Bal Thackeray, the cartoonist. Relax and be yourself, I said. He did.

The story was widely quoted, starting with his infamous comment about throwing the Muslims into the Arabian Sea. He later told me what he meant were anti-national Muslims. I argued: I wrote what you said. The media went for him. He never tried to wriggle out of it. That was the kind of person Thackeray is. Honest to a fault.

Our friendship grew. Years later, when the press boycotted him after one of the Sena's usual rampages, I stood by him. My argument was quite simple. When you are in journalism and you want to stand for the truth, be prepared for the consequences. It's part of your job. As an Editor, I had many defamation cases against me. Death threats too. But that came with the turf. Many times Thackeray offered to send his people to protect me against angry chief ministers, underworld thugs, criminals and politicians I had exposed. I always refused and he loved the fact that I did. Thackeray liked the fearless.

He also liked people who did not seek favours. There were always two Thackerays. One, the politician, angry, demanding, making outrageous comments on everyone and everything around him. The other was the real Thackeray, a warm, witty man always ready to crack a naughty joke or sit with you and chat for hours over a frugal meal or some warm beer or, in later years, over equally warm Chantilly.

He hated red wine. He preferred a pipe but on doctor's advice, switched over to cigars. Every time I travelled, I brought back some books of cartoons and Cuban cigars. He loved David Low's cartoons and it took me some effort to track down his books in London's second hand bookshops. There was no Amazon then. One book was missing which Hemant Morparia had and gifted me. I, in turn, gifted it to Thackeray.

In between, I went to the Rajya Sabha on a Sena ticket backed by the BJP. No, I was not the Sena's first choice. I was their third choice, on the basis of some extra votes they had. Thackeray warned me it would be a tough fight. It was. I was luckily among the first lot that came through. The actual Sena candidate Satish Pradhan limped in second last. Sonia Gandhi's handpicked candidate, Ram Pradhan lost. Thackeray was delighted. He enjoyed my embarrassment when the liberals attacked me for standing from the Sena.

It is these simple things that made Thackeray, Thackeray. He thought beyond the obvious. He made decisions you never expected him to. He had a personal instinct that often turned out to be politically astute. That's how his party was created as well, on the basis of his charm and intuition. People called him many names, I know. I know it's unfashionable to call him a friend. His admiration for Hitler didn't help.

But friendship endures on premises not always logical. Thackeray was one of the finest friends I have had, a clever and wise man who was certainly not what the world saw him as, and yet revelled in being misunderstood, and took political advantage of it. Therein lay his intelligence, his wit and world view. I quite liked that. It made him a very special kind of leader, almost by happenstance you could say.

(The author is a senior journalist)

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.