Many decades ago, when Bal Keshav Thackeray was just a high school student, he elicited the ire of a teacher named Shakuntala Pradhan. As punishment, she made him memorise and recite a particularly difficult poem in Marathi, the mother tongue of both of them.
Thackeray never finished high school, opting instead to sketch political cartoons. Years later, whenever the erstwhile teacher and student spoke by phone — usually about cultural and literary matters — Thackeray always recited that poem, followed by a chuckle. It was a ritual.
In time, Thackeray established himself as a cartoonist and editor of a Marathi magazine that he founded, Marmik, and then moved on to become a political gadfly. Meanwhile, Pradhan became a college professor and a well-known writer. After her marriage to Balkrishna Trimbak Gupte, a lawyer, she took on a name chosen by her new husband, Charusheela.
Charusheela Gupte was my mother. And we — and Bal Thackeray — belonged to an elite community of Maharashtrians called Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, more popularly known as CKP. Much as Thackeray boasted about the exceptionalism of all Maharashtrians, much as he espoused the cause of Maharashtra for Maharashtrians, at heart he remained a CKP. That is to say, there was always the ‘other Bal Thackeray’ whose sensibility was shaped early by his upbringing in a CKP household where tolerance and understanding, and not cultural chauvinism, were the guiding principles.
That Thackeray chose to keep that sensibility well concealed in his later years may speak of the vicissitudes of political life. Now that he’s gone, it’s become fashionable to wonder about his Maharashtrian chauvinism, to wonder what it was that prompted a CKP to discard the basic tenets of his community and to implicitly encourage and condone — at the very least — the violence that his followers in the Shiv Sena perpetrated.
Those followers, and the party they belonged to, came almost as a default for Thackeray. The CKP community has produced, over the years, intellectuals, writers, high-level government bureaucrats and top industrialists. As far I am able to determine, none of them formed a political party. None made strident speeches about Hindutva. And fewer still contended that a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai should be home to Maharashtrians alone.
Rather, the CKP community, in its traditional broadmindedness, recognised that Mumbai could — and should — never be the Maharashtrian stronghold that the Shiv Sena wanted it to be. It was too big a city for that, too diverse in its ethnic makeup, too dependent on national commerce to be parochial.
It is arguable that Maharashtrians constitute the majority of the metropolis’ population of nearly 20 million. It is less arguable that ‘outsiders’ — Tamils, Gujaratis, Keralites, Andhraites, Punjabis and Sindhis — haven’t made Mumbai a rich mosaic of cultures, beliefs and social behavior. If Mumbai is widely regarded not just as India’s commercial capital but also as a global city, it is because ‘outsiders’ strengthened its foundations. Many of them were entrepreneurs who created jobs, and not taken them away from deserving Maharashtrians.
It is tempting to ask why the CKP community’s leaders never reined in Thackeray. That, of course, isn’t the way Mumbai’s social structure moves. Long before he became a symbol of Maharashtrian revivalism, Thackeray was a man baptised in the lore of the CKP community. That lore, limned by a history that traced the CKP’s origins to Rajasthan and elsewhere in India’s north, held that while Maharashtra’s past was to be celebrated, its future lay in strengthening a constitutionally secular society.
I submit that CKP community leaders either did not bother to confront Thackeray’s aberration because they felt intimidated, or they simply chose to look away in shame and disgust over the Shiv Sena’s monstrous ways.
Perhaps Thackeray was regarded as the prodigal son, one who would see the downside of his errant ways. That, of course, never happened. The community failed to note that by his exhortations, jeremiads and condoning of physical assaults against non-Maharashtrians, Thackeray was diminishing the very idea of what it was to be a Maharashtrian.
That idea always embraced a larger concept of Indian nationalism. It contended that a disparate nation like India could never progress without bringing all people along. And CKPs’ idea of nationhood never called for the exclusion of other communities from Maharashtra.
In the heavy flow of appreciations and obituaries of Thackeray, forgotten seems to be the fact that his Shiv Sena also directed its wrath at Maharashtrians who dared to criticise him. A man named GW Behere, who edited a weekly magazine — Sobat — was dragged by Thackeray’s followers outside his home, stripped naked, and forced to run around a park as crowds watched.
Some months later, Thackeray visited Behere, and presented him with an Ambassador car. Propitiation? Maybe. But how do you restore a man’s dignity after humiliating him publicly?
Not long before my mother died in December 1985 — about 10 months after my father passed away — I asked her what she thought of her former student’s career arc. Her answer, given in Marathi: “I don’t remember teaching him to spurn other communities.”
The spurning of the sort that Thackeray and his Shiv Sena engaged in can never produce long-term political, let alone social, dividends. The task of a party in power is to govern, and implicit in that notion is that the party holding power must practise good governance. Has the Shiv Sena brought good governance to Mumbai? The answer: Not any more than any other party, and quite possibly a lot less.
My mother may not have endorsed Thackeray’s ideology, and she could scarcely have imagined that her errant high-school pupil would one day be preaching the idea of an exclusionary Maharashtra.
But I sometimes wonder how her student would have turned out had his teacher’s punishment consisted of requiring him to memorise some slice out of Plato or Shakespeare or Gandhi or Nehru. Would Bal Thackeray have been reciting Gandhi’s beliefs of ahimsa — non-violence — during the phone conversations that he had with Shakuntala Pradhan?
Pranay Gupte is an author and veteran journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.