During its early days, Esselworld, Mumbai’s first major amusement park, was faced with all sorts of roadblocks – governmental, municipal, opposition from local residents, environmentalists, wildlife and heritage groups, the whole lot.
I was in the corporate communications team handling external communications and my job was to work with opinion leaders to sell them the then relatively nascent concept of amusement parks and get them over the line to make positive noises in their circles and in the media. I escorted dozens of celebrities to the newly built park.
The park’s promoter Subhash Chandra (of Zee fame) picked me to escort Bal Thackeray and his family to the park one fine day. “Dev, aap Marathi achche jaante ho, aap hi chalo.” I met the Thackeray family at the park on the appointed morning. He was with his wife Meena and a brood of 5-6 young children, presumably grandchildren and their friends or relatives. And of course there were more than a couple of gun-toting bodyguard types.
The family tried many of the rides and attractions for several hours and I could see Thackeray take great delight in the way the kids were enjoying the visit. I seized the opportunity to tell him about some of the governmental and bureaucratic hurdles that were nearly deeming the operation illegal because of anachronistic entertainment tax laws.
“Kaalji karu nakaa Nadkarni, mee Sharad shi boleen.” Sharad Pawar was the chief minister of Maharashtra then. By then, despite my best efforts at speaking Marathi and my ooh so Marathi sounding last name, Thackeray had picked up that I was a faux Marathi Manoos. When I told him he said, “Kokni mahnze aamchech ki ho.” (It would’ve made more sense if he had said “Kokni mhanze amchi ki ho”). (And again, that’s not the first time I had heard that sort of comment – and thereby hangs another tale but for now I’ll stick to the tiger’s tale).
Soon it was time for lunch and park general manager Rajesh Singh (now writer, blogger and filmmaker) had organised a spread after previously consulting with Sena officials. The park was very basic then and there were no offices thanks to development control rules that prevented the construction of any permanent structures. Lunch, therefore, was organised in one of the porta cabins.
When the family was comfortably seated in the air-conditioned cabin, I asked if we could serve lunch. Because of the basic canteen and serving facilities then, we had the lunch pre packed with cellophane wrapped paper plates – nothing fancy. When the trays with the plates were brought in, Thackeray asked me not to serve it to them.
“Aho Nadkarni, Daha-Bara Tandoori Chicken Maagwa… ekaach tray madhye. Hae nako.” I hurriedly got on the intercom and ordered his bidding. We chatted while the order was getting ready. He was perfectly pleasant, even soft spoken, as he engaged in discussions on a wide range of topics. Then he asked for a phone. I got him a cordless handset. He motioned to one of his bodyguards saying, “Sharad laa lavoon de.”
The man got Chief Minister Sharad Pawar on the line within minutes. Thackeray spoke: “Sharad, mee ithay Esselworld laa alelo aahe. Kiti sundar jaaga ahe hee. Mulaansaathi kiti chhan ahe… Arey, tyaana itka traas ka detos? Karun taak naa tyancha kaam…” and went to chat for a few more minutes. He ended with “Theek aahe nantar bolto tujhyashee.”
Obviously the two were the best of friends, as most suspected then but a fact that everybody knows now (and which Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule alluded to when condoling Thackeray’s death last week). The bitter political rivalry was for the consumption of us hoi polloi. In fact all politicians would have to be extremely good friends with one another outside the political arena. They’re all in it for power and money – it is what unites them.
The dozen tandoori chicken plates arrived and he handpicked 4-5 plates at random and asked for the rest to be taken away. The Thackerays left after spending a few more hours at the park.
I wondered why he had insisted on ordering a dozen plates and randomly picked a few of them. Then I remembered my father’s encounter with Thackeray in the days after Indira Gandhi declared her draconian Emergency in 1975.
As a director of information with the Maharashtra Government, my father was ordered to act as the chief censor of news for Mumbai’s newspapers in the days just after the Emergency was declared. News editors were obliged to get an endorsement from my dad as “OK to publish” before putting the paper to bed. Every news editor had to turn up to his office and he had a bevy of translators to advice him if the language papers were “clean”.
(Dad was hauled up for questioning at dawn from home because of the famous classified ad in the obituaries column, which signaled the death of democracy. It went something like this: “D’Ocracy D.E.M. Son of T Ruth, Justicia….” And so on. It had escaped the censors’ eyes and dad had to spend a night at the police station to explain how it had slipped through… that’s another story and I digress again).
Thackeray turned up at dad’s office with an issue of Marmik, his magazine (there was no Saamna then). Dad offered him a Coke (that was before George Fernandes’ Janata government banned the drink two years later). When the office boy brought a bottle with a straw in it, Thackeray declined and asked for a whole crate so he could pick a sealed bottle at random. The boy did as he was told and Thackeray picked a bottle at random and then sipped from it.
Exactly like the way he was to ask for “Daha bara Tandoori Chicken” to choose a couple from, more than a decade and a half later!