A worthy opponent

Sujata Anandan

India, Nov. 20 -- For someone who has been among Bal Thackeray's fiercest critics all my life, I surprised myself with a moment of unexpected emotion as his bier came into view and I saw his son Uddhav light the Sena supremo's funeral pyre. As a rookie journalist, I cut my milk teeth writing about Bal Thackeray and as recently as May this year, he had complained privately to a friend about my continuing bitter critiques of his politics. But I also had a personal equation with the Sena tiger, not all of the interactions good, but some not too bad either.

The most vivid memory I have even after all these years is of the time I challenged the tiger in his lair and lived to tell the tale. He had been furious with me for trying to uncover some inconvenient truths about the Shiv Sena and he sent for me the day after that story appeared in the Indian Express where I worked at the time.

He used some sexual slang to make his insult as demeaning as possible and now it was my turn to rise in furious rage. I shouted him down in his own den asking for an apology. I was surprised when he did not stand his ground and retreated quickly. And even as I thought he would have me cut down for challenging him so, he called for coffee and bhajias and slipped into some idle chit chat as we sipped the hot coffee, even as I remained tense and unforgiving.

But there were other occasions when he was really witty. Like the time when he just could not formulate a response after the Vajpayee government at the Centre reinstated the Srikrishna Commission that was probing the 1992 riots which he had got dismissed by his own government in Maharashtra in 1995. The ridiculous reason given almost at midnight, after 13 hours of trying to reach him on the phone was that Matoshree was out of electricity and the receptionists could not connect the line to the Sena tiger's den.

A nasty report the next morning had him summoning me again to Matoshree and when I told him that he should refrain from insulting my intelligence through such ridiculous excuses - as though anybody would dare to keep Matoshree in the dark, particularly when the Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashrta, I raged - he gave me a sheepish smile and said with all the aplomb he could muster, "I may not have the electricity, Madam, but I have all the power I need!"

Then there was the time when I missed keeping my appointment with him one day for I had come down with a bad case of malaria. Those were the days before mobile phones had made their advent and I could not inform him on time that I would be standing him up for that interview. As soon as I recovered and returned home, I called up to apologise. He asked me to come over the next day and when I entered the drawing room at his temporary residence at Five Gardens (Matoshree was under renovation at the time), he asked very gravely, "Have you come alone?''

I must admit I was worried for I thought someone of his stature would not stand for a no-show without even being informed and that he was making sure there would be no witnesses to me being beaten up at the least. Even as I looked at him nervously, he said, as gravely, "Have you come alone? Or have you come with malaria?'' I just burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Another time, even as I was taking notes at yet another interaction, he rang the bell at his side and asked the man who answered to "fetch me a bob pin from bhabhi (one of his daughters-in-law).'' When the man returned with the pin, he handed it to me saying, "Here! Pin up your hair!''

As I looked at him in outrage, he said authoritatively, "Your locks are falling into your eyes and I am getting irritated to see you push them back every three minutes or so. Pin them up and concentrate on writing!''

I was highly embarrassed to say the least but in the interest of future interviews, I quietly accepted the pin and got my fringe out of the way.

No other politician could have got away with something like that. But then this was Bal Thackeray. And I sure will miss fighting with him.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.