I first met Balasaheb Thackeray when he was a cartoonist at the Free Press Journal and I was the youth Congress chief in Maharshtra. He used to live at Dadar and I used to live at what is now the Tilak Bhavan, the state Congress headquarters.
We made a threesome with VK Desai, a very well read and intellectual person, who was then secretary to industrialist Ramkrishna Bajaj. He later took to writing articles in Marmik (Thackeray's magazine) under an assumed name and later was Balasaheb's advisor and totally behind his setting up the Shiv Sena.
We were introduced and we began meeting regularly, along with a few others on the second or third floor of Elphinstone College in those days opposite Kala Ghoda. The first few meetings of the Shiv Sena were unremarkable - it was Ramrao Adik who had first addressed the first meeting of the Shiv Sena. But Balasaheb came into prominence when he took up the Maharashtra-Karnataka border issue and decided to blockade Morarji Desai for some anti-Maharashtra remarks he made.
That was when I was first affected by his politics - I was in Baramati and travelling towards Mumbai when my car was attacked in Lalbaug by stone-throwers. I escaped unhurt, but my windshield was broken and a senior Congress leader travelling with me broke his jaw and though we took him to hospital, the jaw remained damaged forever.
By now Thackeray and I were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we continued to remain friends. He referred to me as 'Sharad Babu' in private but used filthy language (which he called Thakri bhasha) against me in public. He drew horrible cartoons of me in Marmik, referring to me as momaja (Mohammad) Pawar and making me look like a gunny bag. But he would invite me, my wife Pratibha and my baby daughter Supriya to his home for lunch or dinner and harangue his wife who he used to call Ma - I do not know anybody who calls their wife as mother, children do but not husbands - to prepare a good lunch for us. He would ask his children to play with Supriya and would not be comfortable until we had enjoyed and appreciated the lunch cooked by his wife. He was my best friend personally but worst enemy politically. He was a dildar virodhi (magnanimous opponent) but even in politics he never forgot our friendship.
For example when Supriya was contesting the Rajya Sabha from Maharas-htra on a Congress-NCP ticket and we were wondering from where to get enough number of votes for her, I got a call from Balasaheb. He said, "Sharadbabu, I hear our Supriya wants to contest elections and you have not told me! Why do I get to hear it from someone else?'' I replied that the Sena-BJP had a candidate against her. 'He said, "No way will there be my candidate contesting against Supriya!. Your daughter is my daughter and I will not have it.''
He did not care for the BJP and he had their candidate withdrawn and Supriya got elected unopposed. Similarly, on just one appeal from me to support Pratibha Patil as the first woman and the first Maharashtrian for Rashtrapati, he offered support. When I asked him about the BJP, he said, "They can go to hell''.
He said the same thing again when I took Pranab-da to him before the presidential election. He once again readily offered support saying Mukherjee was the best parliamentarian he had known and moreover he was from Bengal. "And Bengal and Maharashtra have always been together, so the BJP can go to hell.''
But he was with Mrs Gandhi when I was with the Congress (S) in 1978, saying he is a disciplinarian and if Mrs Gandhi can break up Pakistan, he expected her to defeat that country and wipe it off the map forever and so he would be her supporter. On one appeal from AR Antulay in 1980 he withdrew all his candidates at the elections and helped her party to victory.
He was the only leader who built a leadership from scratch.
We had furious public spats but a very good personal equation. There cannot be another leader like him now.
(As told to Sujata Anandan)