At Shivaji Park

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The funeral and the spectacle

A man in my neighbourhood bought a second-hand red Wagon R a few weeks ago. He had not touched it after that. On the afternoon of Bal Thackeray’s funeral, the car was pulled out. He sat behind the wheel, a hired driver was next to him for confidence, in the back seat was wife and daughter, the nervous joy of new things written on them. It was a good day to handle the car.  The streets were bare, wide and even looked clean. In the playgrounds kids played cricket. The bus conductor was polite when demanding change. The suburban train, even the second class compartment, had many vacant seats.  The few commuters looked at ease. Everything was as it should be. This was what Mumbai would have been in a parallel universe—a city with space, time and leisure; a city not hurtling towards becoming India’s biggest relief camp; the liveable city that the Shiv Sena had been promising for decades.

It was around 3 when I got down at Dadar station.  You didn’t need to guess which direction Shivaji Park was. The left half of the street were people going and the right half were those returning. Shutters were down and nothing moved except humans. I soon noticed a banner of Bal Thackeray with ‘Suryasth’ (sunset) written on it. The painter had had some issues with perspective. Black clouds, which should have been in the sky behind, seemed to emanate from Thackeray’s forehead.

Shivaji Park was half empty. There was a stage and shamiana at the far end. In front of it, there were barricades before which people were tightly packed. And then nearer, where I stood, there were haphazard agglomerations of sitting men and women. Those who didn’t want to be trapped stood on the fringes. The ground was trisected with narrow lanes made out of barricades. These were the queues for those who wanted to do a final oblation to their dead deity. Except that there was no deity. It had been reported the previous day that the body would be brought here at 7 am. Those at the head of the queue probably came early morning. Fifteen years ago, as a trainee reporter, I was regularly sent to cover Thackeray’s rallies. He would be two to three hours late. Death had just made it worse. His procession was still inching its way to Shivaji Park at 4 pm.

In the crowd there was no grief, no rage, no frustration, just disinterest. You probably saw three weeping women on television news. I didn’t. I was too far back and from where I stood no one cried. Television does not lie, it is only an extrapolator on steroids. Images of grief turns into a gigantic wail in the news studios. There were televisions at Shivaji Park too. Giant LED screens mounted on the side of huge trucks to show what was happening on the stage where at the moment a man stood and gave instructions in Marathi:

‘The body will be here shortly. All of you who are here to have a final darshan, please cooperate. There are television screens on four sides. Do Jai Maharashtra there’

The crowd waited for something. They looked at the screens because there was nothing else to do. And there was nothing on the screens and so they looked elsewhere. I crisscrossed the ground but still couldn’t find any thumping of chests. It was announced that the VIPs had come. They walked in—Sharad Pawar, Anil Ambani, Sushma Swaraj, Prithviraj Chavan, Venugopal Dhoot and so on. Those who were sitting shouted at those who were standing to sit down because they were blocking the view to the screen. Others came to block the view. When Amitabh Bachchan’s name was announced, everyone got up to see him. The man on stage asked the local leaders to get out of their chairs to make way for the VVIPs. Another announcement went like this:

“Those standing on the generators, please get down. These are live generators. If you want, come and sit on the chairs.’

No one bought that. If the MLAs and corporators had to vacate their chairs for VVIPs why would anyone spare a seat to someone whose only qualification was he stood on a generator. They remained put. Suddenly, the crowd exploded and people started coming in from all directions. The procession was here. I walked to the other end of the ground, closer to where I thought I could see the vehicle carrying the body drive in. I couldn’t see anything and I turned my head to the screen. It occurred to me that all this was a little surreal—95 percent of those present were here to watch these giant LED screens; it was a reality show you could not see live but in which you were still a participant.

The body arrived. Immediately, it was announced that the VVIPs would now pay their respects. Their names were advertised on the mikes as they lined up to place their wreaths. In between, the man on stage shouted at them to get moving. He then shouted at the police to get out because they were crowding the spot.

Those seated strained their necks to look at the screens. They shouted at the men standing ahead. I saw an empty water bottle arc on the air on to where men were standing. Someone’s patience had snapped. Another bottle went flying after some time. Near to me, just as the gun salute got over and the bugles started, I saw a man in a red shirt take something, a bottle’s cap probably, and fling it ahead. The person on whose head it landed turned around. The red shirt sat expressionlessly. A bearded man nearby looked at him with distaste.

Just as the VVIPs had finished paying their respects it was announced that now the final rites would begin. If I had been a Shiv Sainik who had parked myself here since 7 in the morning, I would have probably ruminated about injustice. But I was not a Shiv Sainik and I had also not been here since 7 am.  In any case, there was no way this everyone could have a look without the ceremony going through all of 2012.

The pyre was lit. The crowd finally looked animated. They got up in unison. The red shirt folded his hands into a namaste over his head. The flames leaped up and the smoke billowed. Soon everyone started leaving. I could now go ahead for a closer look but, about 10 feet from the pyre, I found myself being crushed. This was the queue for the common man to do service to the dead. The queue was not moving because people were clicking photos with their cellphones. From behind more were squeezing in. At the end of the line the cameras of the news channels were stationed. Near them, in what looked like a reserved zone, about 20 strategically placed Shiv Sainiks were shouting slogans asking Bal Thackeray to come back. The crowd took their photos, squeezed ahead to come before the cameras, stopped to wave at them and then went away.