The Man Who Was Bigger Than The City

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*This was written a year ago immediately after the announcement of Bal Thackeray’s death. I was on my way to stargaze that evening when we had to return home for fear of a citywide bandh.*

Most of us came to know of Balasaheb Thacekeray’s death via sms, whatsapp, fb. The first response was to get in touch with our loved ones – to confirm the news as well as to ask them to get home from wherever they were or to ask them to stay put if they were already home. As in life, so in death. Balasaheb might have almost breathed (?) a sigh of relief. He was dead. But he was still feared.

Fear was his most potent tool. From mill & labour politics to running the city, Balasaheb had managed most of his politics with a very aggressive mix of not-so-subtle fear and mesmerising oratory. Fear is easy to understand. And that will mostly be his legacy on a national front. On a smaller scale, in a deeper way, within the marathi community, his oratory will keep him alive.

While the city literally shut down at the news of Balasaheb’s death, a lot of families, politically related to Balasaheb, Shiv Sena’s voter base as well as most of the lower middle class in Mumbai and Maharashtra felt a sense of loss. Sometimes you don’t agree with a man and his methods. That doesn’t stop you from admiring, even respecting and sometimes idolising the person.

From looking forward to Shiv Sena declared bandhs when in school to growing up, understanding identity politics and the personal achievement of a cartoonist who became a politician, some of us have seen, some of us have heard about, some of us have even experienced the journey of a man who closed down the city so many times in his life and now even after he died. Some of us were inconvenienced. Some of us were angered. Some of us are looking forward to the probable bandh on Monday. Yet, these some were not part of the most in the city that mourned.

It is true that the city shut down today. It is also true that the city shut down because of fear. Yet, the man who inspired fear is no more. There are talks of Shiv Sena losing its identity with Balasaheb. In part also because the current generation has no clue of who he was. The urban yuppy whose identity is defined by an iPod, not voting and conversational environmentalism, has less extreme heroes. In life and in death, Balasaheb polarised. Today, there are people who have a profound sense of loss of a milestone of political leadership in Maharashtra and there are those who were inconvenienced. There are those who understand that the man who died wasn’t like you and me, he was much more, had done much more, had inspired much more, had touched much more, both good and bad. And there are those who are too rootless to even really understand the concept of identity politics.

I did not agree with most of Shiv Sena’s stands. Their stand against Valentine’s day, their thug antics, random bandhs, destruction of public property can hardly be justified. And yet, the Thackeray family has been involved in influential politics for at least 3 generations now. Balasaheb, his brother and their father were instrumental in the formation of Maharashtra as a state. There are those of us for who ourselves, our jobs and vehicle, maybe relationships are all that inspire, motivate and take up our time, material resources and emotional resources. For some, the world doesn’t end at themselves. In ways both good and bad, their circle of influence, their circle of need, their circle of what affects them goes beyond themselves.

Mill workers not getting their rights wrings someone’s heart. Their community getting left behind in a fast changing world, affects someone else. And they decide to take up arms. Sometimes alienating those very people they are fighting for. But the fighter fights. The world changes. After a while, only the damage remains visible. The hero becomes the villain. When he dies, a city stops. They say it stopped because of fear. And yet, the city remembers that it wouldn’t have been what it is without the man who died. It might not be a part of Maharashtra even. Whether good, whether bad, he was the father of the city in many ways. You owe it to the man who influenced the current avatar of this city, to deal with a little inconvenience. It is a mark of respect to a man who was greater than what most of us can even imagine to be.

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