Mark Manuel, Consulting Editor, is a journalist of many years and varied experiences. He is known for his People interviews having written on famous faces ranging from Mother Teresa to Muhammad Ali and Salman Khan to Sylvester Stallone. When not writing, he spends his time reading, listening to music, working out and watching movies. Or smoking cigars and drinking wine.
Here's his rendezvous with Bal Thackeray:
Mumbai: There must not be a single journalist in India who did not at some time in his career wish to interview the Shiv Sena supremo, Balasaheb Thackeray. I have been more fortunate than most. I did this not once; but several times. The last time was over a glass of wine. And it was not so much an interview; we were discussing things other than politics.
Like food and wine, and cigars, which was his new passion. Also cricket, because cricket was one of his earliest passions. And players from Mumbai, like Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar before him – both of them being the Marathi manoos whose cause Balasaheb notoriously championed, were his favorite cricketers. He either praised them or denounced them publicly, depending on how well Tendulkar or Gavaskar were playing against Pakistan – which cricket team Balasaheb liked to hate most of all.
I think India was touring South Africa then, and typically Indian wickets were going down like ninepins, for Balasaheb switched off the television in disgust. Outside, it was Navratri. And he commented wryly, “Here people are playing dandia, there the South Africans are taking our dandi!” This, like I said, over a glass of wine. He had not switched on the tape recorder like he used to when talking to the media for fear of being misquoted later. Not fear, actually – for Balasaheb feared nobody and nothing, but bad journalism irritated him, and he was constantly harassed to clarify some statement that he had not made but which had been wrongly reported in the press as having come from him.
Interviewing Balasaheb was the easiest assignment in journalism. You did not have to do much, or go prepared. He did all the talking, supplying you with questions and issues, witticisms and criticisms, all delivered with panache that no other politician in India could hope to match. I admired that in him, his rhetoric. Just as I did his ability to sway the masses, draw crowds, and shut down the city of Mumbai or bring it onto its knees as his whim dictated.
It is, I know, a dubious distinction, but this was an indication of the power the man had over the people. And what do politicians want ultimately if not for power! Though Balasaheb was cut of a different cloth, he was a political party leader – not a politician, he never himself hankered for a political post or appointment. And when his party ran the government in Maharashtra in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, he chose to remain behind the scenes – and famously ran the state by remote control from his fortress Matoshree in Bandra west, Mumbai.
I have never had any take on his ideologies, nor really cared for his take on the world at large and what was happening to his beloved Maharashtra, but whenever I met him – I came away entertained if not enlightened. For Balasaheb was a treat to talk to. He gave you paisa vasool and more, regaling you with his wit, stinging you with his sarcasm, amazing you with his knowledge of most things. He had an uncanny finger on the pulse of the people and instinctively knew what they wanted of him. I guess that’s why of all the great leaders Maharashtra has produced since Independence, he can best be described as the real Champion of the Marathi Manoos.
But to come back to our meeting, the glass of wine had just led me to discover that Balasaheb was once almost a bon vivant, and he could talk with great authority on the restaurants of old Bombay (“Mumbai,” he reminded forcefully when I made the rash mistake of saying “Bombay”) that served Continental and Chinese cuisines. He himself was particularly fond of home-cooked Maharashtrian seafood and Italian pastas, as used to be served at the old Gourdon restaurant at Churchgate. “But that was in the 1950s, when I was a cartoonist with the Free Press Journal,” Balasaheb wistfully remembered. “Unfortunately, politics killed my appetite, like it destroyed my concentration to draw. I used to be a foodie and I had the taste for good food. We used to order from the best restaurants and eat at home. My wife, who was a good cook, used to like Chinese food.
I liked Thai food, because it is so tasty. Now I cannot relish food because I have no time to eat. There are too many visitors, too many phone calls. No sleep, no time to read. I miss my appetite for good food. I now eat simple Indian vegetarian food, steamed or boiled. No mutton biryanis and pomfret curries anymore. I like light food, no chillies and no spices. Rice, dal, some vegetables, two, three phulkas. Not too many sweets. Perhaps, some coconut-based dessert. And no tea and coffee. To think that in my Free Press Journal days I used to live on cashewnuts and cold coffee! And I could also cook. When I spent time in the US of A with a great artist called Bradford, I used to make soups with cheese, eggs and cream cracker biscuits. Bradford used to say, ‘Cool, man!’ even if the soup was bad!”
But this was all much before my own stint in journalism began. Now, he was elegantly sipping a French white wine while jauntily puffing away at a Havana cigar. He knew I was a cigar smoker myself, and generously indicated with his hand a humidor standing on the table; but out of some regard for him, I did not take a cigar. Instead, I accepted a glass of wine. It was dreadful! White wines are meant to be served at room temperature, yes; but European room temperatures which range between 10 and 18 degrees C, not this 32 degrees C that it was in Bandra east that day! And Balasaheb did not believe in chilling his wine.
“How is the wine,” he politely asked me. I dodged the question and directed his attention towards the cigar. “You are never seen without a pipe or cigar,” I said. “Cigar, nowadays,” he admitted, blowing smoke in my direction. “I gave up the pipe in 1995, when I had my heart operation. But I sometimes miss smoking it. The tobaccos used to have such good aromas. I remember the brands... Marco Polo, Three Nuns, and another one called Henry the something! I had a huge collection of pipes. I even liked that municipal job of cleaning them regularly with Eau de Cologne!” He got his cigars from friends who traveled abroad, he had never bought one himself, and he favored the Churchill from Havana. “It’s a good cigar. I like them thick and long. But I don’t smoke continuously. There are many breaks,” he said waving the cigar in the air.
He had developed the habit of smoking in 1954, he distinctly remembered, again when he was a cartoonist at Free Press Journal. “I suffered a cold the year round. I could neither blow my nose nor draw, it was that bad! Smoking, I discovered, dried my nose. Those days it was Peacock brand cheeroots from Tiruchirapalli. Until someone convinced me a pipe was more my style. And then, cigars,” Balasaheb revealed. He was used to seeing pictures of himself in the press with either a cigar in the mouth or pipe in the hand. “But that does not make me an addict,” he told me, “I can give up smoking. But it helps me tide over my loneliness. I’m often miserable. And alone. After I lost my wife, and my son in an accident, I found that the cigar helped me to relax. It keeps me going... and from returning to loneliness.”
I asked him when he had given up beer and taken up wine, because this was news to me, I had landed up at Matoshree with a case of Heineken beer procured from the friendly neighborhood bootlegger – this was before liberalization had set in India and the markets had opened up. “Beer, I started drinking during my cartoonist days,” Balasaheb said. “I never looked beyond a cold drink, until an American lady told me that in her country, even children drank beer! Heineken is a good brand. But I’ve had all the local beers, too. Yes, with the glycerin! I gave up beer because it has too many calories. Even though I was drinking it in tins... not tonnes! Now I drink white wine, French or Indian. Sometimes champagne, a glass or two.” I asked, “At home or in public?” Balasaheb snorted, the famous temper almost surfacing in outrage over my effrontery, “At home! I rarely drink in public. I like to behave like a gentleman.” I quickly distracted him again, “But why white wine? Isn’t red better for your heart?” Balasaheb Thackeray, however and as was his wont, had the last word and laugh. “I guess it should be,” he cleverly and cunningly replied, “But white wine suits me fine. Besides, who says I have a heart! The media says I am heartless!”
Photo courtesy: Farzana Behram Contractor