Murli Deora was almost the first person I met in Bombay when I first arrived in this big bad metropolis from Nagpur — and, indeed, the first celebrity politician apart from those I already knew from my home town.
In the days before Page 3 or television channels, I had seen a picture of him on the front page of a national newspaper and I was excited as hell to see his car at a traffic signal on Madame Cama Road. I was with a colleague and Murlibhai recognised the man. He hopped out of his car and walked us to his office close by at Churchgate. He offered me naariyal paani and asked me all sorts of nasty questions. But through that inquisitiveness, he was so charming that I could not be upset for too long and returned to his office many times to chat about the city and its politics. It was only much later that I learnt why Murlibhai had been rather hard on me in the early days of our friendship — it was because of the company I was keeping. For, I did not know it then but this colleague was also a part-time Congress worker and one of not very good repute. Murlibhai was simply trying to assess how bad or good I was and whether I needed rescuing from someone whom he described charitably as “a rascal and a ruffian’’. I did. Murlibhai soon realised I had no idea about rogues and kept a firm eye on me and a stern one on my colleague all the time that we worked for the same organisation. I have never ceased to be thankful for the manner in which he looked out for me without having to — and with no strings attached. Murlibhai never asked me even once to write a sympathetic story about him or the organisation he headed for 22 years: It was just a good turn of one good human being towards another.
When I mentioned this to him years later, he said, “I could see you were from a good family but with the handicap of being from a small town and not knowing the bad ways of the metropolis. I was not sure how you would take it but I had to do something.”
So, after all, it was to Deora that I went in outrage when Bal Thackeray, angry with me for trying to uncover a particular unsavoury truth about the Shiv Sena, described me as a “used condom’’. I had, of course, shouted Thackeray down but was nearly in tears as I returned to my office after that interview and, on impulse, decided to drop by Murlibhai’s office on the way. I was even more outraged when Murlibhai just laughed and said, “Good!’’. At the look on my face, he explained, “This man who is feared by the whole world, threatens to beat up and maim people — all that he can do is abuse you and call you a dirty name? Don’t you see that this is a victory for you and how frustrating it might have been for him to backtrack?’’
Thackeray had apologised and offered me a cup of coffee which I had accepted as an olive branch. Murlibhai later said that I should have turned that down and walked out of Matoshree without looking back. “You would have seen how that would have driven him up the wall. Now you have made peace and he will not have a sleepless night!’’
He then added, “Beta, as a journalist, if you do not get a few gaalis like this in your career then you are not quite worth the salt. Look upon it as a victory, not an insult.’’
I opened my recently released book on Bal Thackeray Hindu Hriday Samrat: How the Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever with that story. I called Murlibhai to tell him about it — and that I had made other mentions of him in my book. “I want to come over and present you with a copy,’’ I told him. But Murlibhai turned down the offer. “I do not believe in taking books for free from authors. The only way I can support you is by buying your book. I will order it.’’
Bombay will not be the same to me without Murli Deora.