I met Bal Thackeray nearly 50 years ago in his modest ground floor flat at Shivaji Park, in central Mumbai. In today’s parlance it could have been described as a “one BHK” apartment. But in those days, it was merely a lower middle class house with no fancy furniture nor any “interior decoration”. There was no question of a TV set then. There was an old radio on the shelf and two cane chairs in the so called drawing room. His brother, Shrikant, opened the door and asked me to sit on one of those chairs.
I was a college student in my teens and had gone to invite him for a literary function. Bal Thackeray’s only reputation (if it can be called even that) was that he was the editor of the first and only cartoon weekly, Marmik. The weekly was slowly gaining popularity because of its no holds barred attack on the political class. He was not widely known, forget being popular. He was in his mid-thirties then. Slim, short, almost non-descript. I had brought him to the venue in a taxi. He used to smoke a pipe. The pipe looked large when compared to his small and unassuming persona.
It was not easy to collect students or people to hear him. We had put up a large canvass and a blackboard on the dais. He was to demonstrate the art of caricature drawing. He was scintillating with his sarcastic barbs and even as he spoke, he drew delightful caricatures of VK Krishna Menon, the then defence minister under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and some others. He drew Panditji with just seven lines, showing his bald head, pleasant smile and a rose. Altogether, about 70 people, including students, attended the function.
About three years later, Thackeray was to address a mammoth gathering of nearly 40,000 people at Shivaji Park. This ground had seen great and historic meetings, including the one when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had formally declared the formation of the state of Maharashtra on May 1, 1960. It was a proud moment for the people of Mumbai. I was in school then and the day was declared Maharashtra Day. Thousands of schoolchildren were brought to the ground to witness the historic event. It was an inspiring event and there was hope and enthusiasm in air. In 1966, for Bal Thackeray to hold the rally and announce the formation of the Shiv Sena on the same ground was like he had directly joining the political Ivy League.
Between 1960, when the state of Maharashtra was formed, and 1966, when the Shiv Sena was launched, the country had been on a roller coaster ride. The rise of the Shiv Sena and the emergence of a maverick leader like Balasaheb Thackeray cannot be understood without taking into cognisance that tumultuous ride.
After achieving the objective of creation of Maharashtra, the leftist Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti had been voluntarily dissolved. In the 1962 elections the Congress had come to power with a good majority. But the hope of a better life had begun to wear thin. For cartoonists like Thackeray, the frustration was creatively inspiring. It helped him throw barbs of the artist’s brush at the rulers.
The economy, particularly after the India-China war of 1962, had begun to show signs of inflation and recession. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the Congress felt disoriented. Lal Bahadur Shastri had failed to inspire the party and before he could establish himself as a leader, he too had died. Indira Gandhi had just taken over as Prime Minister and in the initial days, the “dumb doll” provided themes for gags on her. When she emerged as a superwoman, then too she provided great subject matter to Thackeray. He was at once in awe of her and also a trenchant cartoon-critic.
The mid-sixties saw the rise of many local-regional leaders and political outfits. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK came to power, overthrowing the Congress for good. In Punjab, the Akali Dal entrenched itself. In West Bengal, the Communists began to have their sway. The Naxalite movement too came on the national scene in 1969-70. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was routed in the 1967 elections and new opposition fronts were born.