I spent my teenage years in the city then called Bombay, and several of them within walking distance of the increasingly imposing Shiv Sena Bhavan near Shivaji Park. When we arrived in Bombay in the early ‘70s, the Shiv Sena’s Mumbai-for-Maharashtrians campaign was well on its way, and Congress chief minister V.P. Naik seemed either ineffectual or quite happy to go along with it.
The rage was principally focused on South Indians. The papers reported violent incidents almost every day. Shiv Sainiks would storm Churchgate station at rush hour, zero in on “South Indian-looking” individuals in the crowd waiting for their trains home, and ask them questions in Marathi. If they were unable to reply, they would be beaten up. Goons would burst into the offices of bank chairmen with recent recruitment lists and demand why so many of the people hired in clerical posts were South Indian. They would point out that the Mumbai mailing addresses given by dozens of such candidates were the same—a kholi in Matunga or Sion. “You let these Madrasis put one foot in Mumbai’s door,” a Maharashtrian classmate told me, “and their 65 cousins rush in.” “Madrasis” was a catch-all phrase, and all the languages they spoke was “yundugundu”.
Bengalis were below the radar, but the early ‘70s in Bombay were still quite an alarming time for an 11-year-old who had suddenly been transplanted in a state whose language he did not know at all. In 1974, Balasaheb passed a diktat that all signboards in the city had to be primarily in Marathi. A 45-day deadline was given. As recent migrants, we watched in awe as everyone, from multinational banks to the garment stores in Gujarati-majority Ghatkopar changed their signs. The only area of the city that remained defiant was the predominantly Muslim localities in central Bombay, where the signs remained in Urdu and English. The Sena could do nothing. It would be from this neighbourhood that Dawood Ibrahim would rise.
Yet, Maharashtra was also the state which recognized Bombay’s cosmopolitan nature and offered something perhaps unique in India—an “exemption from Marathi” for schoolchildren who had come to Bombay too late to catch up with the Marathi curriculum. I was in Class VII and opted for this exemption. So for two years (till I had the choice of taking some other “third language”), I had one subject less to study, but was not given any rank in the exams. Thousands of children would surely have benefited from this benign system which truly recognized India’s plurality. I have no idea if it still continues.
Bengalis abruptly lit up the Shiv Sena radar in 1975 or 1976 when some Shivaji Park cricketers (including a few who had played or were playing for India) complained to Bal Thackeray that the annual Durga Puja at the park disturbed their cricket practice. It was heard that Thackeray was concerned (Bombay, after all, was Indian cricket to a large extent in those days, and Shivaji Park was Bombay cricket) and was about to issue a fiat banning the celebrations. This would be a catastrophe (it was the biggest Puja in the city), and everyone knew that appealing to the state government would be pointless. The wiliest Bengali minds of Bombay met to find a solution.
They thought up a brilliant one, and its success is emblematic of a strand that ran through the late Balasaheb’s career: a deep hunger for acceptance and recognition. By the ‘90s, as the man who could bring Mumbai to a standstill, he would want it from Michael Jackson, Enron’s Rebecca Mark and Bollywood stars. In the mid-‘70s, the invitation from the “intellectual” Bengali community to inaugurate its largest Durga Puja was enough to warm his cockles.
On the evening of Maha Shashthi, Thackeray arrived at the pandal flanked by two large glowering thugs, delivered a speech in Marathi (which I, “exempted from Marathi”, didn’t understand much of) and declared the festivities open. He was presented with a solid bronze Ganapati figure (Enron’s Mark would gift him Disney animation film CDs). This he quickly handed over to his guards, since it clearly weighed at least 20 kg. The Durga Puja (which actually occupied only about one-twentieth of the park and would not have impeded the diligent cricketers at all) had received the great man’s blessings, and nothing more was ever heard about it.
Now, the Shiv Sena has demanded that a memorial to Balasaheb be set up at the spot in Shivaji Park where he was given a state cremation. It was this that brought back my memories. Because that memorial, which will surely be built, would truly, seriously hinder Mumbai cricket, which needs more encouragement today than ever before.