Bal Thackeray was always in awe of the English media, the way it was. He knew how to counter the Marathi media – he belonged to them – but he thought English language newspapers were a different kettle of fish. It may have had something to do with his early job as a cartoonist in Free Press Journal, and a little to do with the fact that his schooling had been in the Marathi medium and he had seen stalwarts like Frank Moraes and Shyamlal in English journalism.
I saw all this when I did my first interview with him.
I’d read the interviews he had given to several opportunist editors who, misusing their editorial independence, went on to make a pile of money and grow in their career. I didn’t want to do that. As a freelance writer, I was a Special Correspondent for Delhi Press’ flagship, ‘Caravan’, and while ‘Caravan’ didn’t sell as well and didn’t have the kind of glamour some Bombay glossies had, it was respected.
I sought an interview with Bal Thackeray, who assumed that I was coming from Delhi (connection: Delhi Press) and was quite enthusiastic to give one more interview. My interview was more on the lines of a ‘court martial’. He’d get angry and reply and I would ask a counter-question. After the interview, he asked me to accompany him to one of his rallies. It was in Kumbharwada. I sat next to him on the dais. I noticed the holes in his socks! I told him that I liked that!!! He smiled. The hostility between us melted. When he got up to deliver his speech, he introduced me to the audience as ‘a journalist who has come all the way from Delhi’ to interview him and touted that as the growing success of the Shiv Sena.
At the end of the rally, he asked one of his sainiks to drop me home.
The loyalty he commanded and the rousing reception he got was a testimony to his popularity. The Marathi manoos was in love with him. I had been quite impressed with the rise of a cartoonist to a phenomenal leader.
The interview was published verbatim, and I sent him a copy.
Within hours, I received a call. He wanted me to come to Sena Bhavan, the same evening. I was ushered in immediately. The issue of ‘Caravan’ with him on the cover was lying on his large desk.. I had thought that he’d be happy to see the colour picture of himself with his famous pipe, taken by his friend Mohan Wagh. Apparently, he was not.
He accepted my hand in his hand – an artist’s delicate hand – and I sat in front of him. He had underlined the captions and sub-headings that he hadn’t liked.
“You saw the response I received, isn’t it?”
“And you ask the question on the cover: Is Shiv Sena a spent force?”
It was a foolish heading what with the picture of a massive gathering of Marathi Manoos on the cover. But what can a freelance writer do about it after an article is published?
I tried to defend the indefensible. I had known and had written that Sena is going to be in the running for decades. But I tried defending my position with, “I am a freelance writer and cannot control the editorial freedom of renaming an article.”
“But you article is too critical of Sena.”
“You are already aware of what I think of a party based on communal lines. I had asked you those questions and you had answered them. I believe that a communal party with a name like Shiv Sena has no place in a secular democracy.”
“What secularism and what democracy are you talking of?” He asked. The argument went on for some time. Seeing his anger, I didn’t argue as fiercely and let him ‘win all the arguments’.
“And now, what are these foolish lines?” he asked me.
There were several critical references to him and the Sena in the photo-captions, and some lines had also been added to the intro of the article. I had faced similar problems with the interviews with Dawood Ibrahim and Arvind Dholkia too though not in ‘Caravan’.
“As far as I am concerned, my responsibility is limited to the interview. Have I misquoted you anywhere?”
“I don’t care about being quoted or misquoted. I am asking about these lines… here… here… and there…”
“But they are photo-captions. I am not responsible for that.”
“Your name goes with the article. You are responsible for every word.” Thackeray said sternly. He still had no problem with the hard questions and answers as they were accurate. “I know what you asked me and liked your bold questions. You asked me questions I replied to them. But these are not acceptable!”
I countered, “You too worked in a newspaper once. Don’t you know how they operate?”
He believed that a journalist can and should insist on complete control of his article.
“You can argue with me, but you couldn’t argue with your editor,” he taunted me.
“Didn’t you face a similar situation when you were a cartoonist?” I asked. Somehow, that made him very angry and he said, “I don’t want to argue with you. Before I tell you to get out, GET OUT!”
And I got the hell out…
But it being a small world, I’d bump into him. By then, having started his own daily, he had started understanding the limitations under which a freelance writer worked. The next time I bumped into him he smiled, “Caravan journalist…Mohan Deep?”
I was happy. He hadn’t forgotten me. Much later I realized that politicians, dons and film stars never let themselves forget your name.
“I must say that you are gutsy.” He said. I thought he was referring to the same interview but he was talking about some articles about the underworld of Mumbai I had written. I did a few more interviews with him. His Dopahar Ka Saamna even serialized my book “Simply Scandalous: Meena Kumari” and a my exposure “Daastan-E-Dilip Kumar.” My friend Sanjay Nirupam was the Executive Editor at that time.