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The Complex Maharashtrian

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Most Maharashtrians look down upon ‘leaders’ like Raj Thackeray, but he is politically successful because of a strange Marathi gene.

Most Maharashtrians look down on ‘leaders’ like Raj Thackeray, but his success is due to a strange Marathi gene.

Most Maharashtrians look down on ‘leaders’ like Raj Thackeray, but his success is due to a strange Marathi gene.

Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese scholar and explorer, visited Maharashtra between AD 640 and 641. He called it Mo-ho-lo-cha. It is intriguingly close to the state’s more accurate name today, Maha-locha. (‘Locha’, you’d know if you are colloquial enough, is ‘mess’.)

Maharashtra is under heavy debt. Most of its politicians are seen as criminals. The management of Mumbai, capital of the state, is a joke. This was evident from the rain of 26 July 2005, and the response to the terrorist attacks on 26 November 2008, and the way Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is allowed to break the law whenever it wishes.

The leader of the MNS, Raj Thackeray, is a good, if unoriginal, orator. The several Benson & Hedges he smokes add some timbre to his voice. He also draws decent cartoons. That’s about it.

In a state where farmers end their lives when it does not rain, Raj feels no guilt in parading his harem of luxury cars. After MNS’s strong showing in the Assembly polls, he bought a Toyota Land Cruiser. He also has an Audi, a Mitsubishi Pajero and a Mercedes.

He has never been forthcoming about the details of his Kohinoor Mills deal. In 2005, Raj and two partners bought the 4.8-acre Kohinoor Mills property, which is situated opposite the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Shivaji Park, for Rs 421 crore. Raj sold his stake this year for Rs 62 crore. That’s the official figure. How can a man in public service have so much money?

No point asking Raj. He deflects probing questions. Knowing him, he’d say, ‘Why don’t you ask so-and-so? How can he be wealthy?’

Raj Thackeray is the Sarah Palin of Shivaji Park. A semi-photogenic vernacularist who, despite shortcomings, has gained some traction. His surprising success has left literate Maharashtrians confused. On the one hand, they approve of Raj. He is looking out for them, their language and their culture. They see logic in his policies. The capital of Maharashtra must be Maharashtrian in its ways.

But there is a part of him that they reject. Character is the principal ingredient of great leaders. There is no evidence of it in Raj. Some of his colleagues are abominable—like the Pune MLA Ramesh Wanjale, who wears 2.5 kg of gold ornaments. Raj’s rowdy ways make them cringe.

The ambivalence of Maharashtrians towards Raj is also a reflection of the contradictions in their own personality. Which brings us to the question: what are Maharashtrians like? What is good about us and what is not? What do we want? What do we fear?

At one level, middle-class Maharashtrians have wholesome attributes. They are cultured, they value education and the creative arts. The Forbes list of 100 Richest Indians may have only one Maharashtrian (Virendra Mhaiskar of IRB Infrastructure Developers, who is at No 51 in the list). But the state has produced titans in writing, acting, music and sports. If Maharashtrians feel proud of their soil, it is justified.

“Maharashtra has produced achievers of international levels in every field,” says Dilip Prabhavalkar, the veteran actor who played Gandhi in Lage Raho Munnabhai and is a household name in the state. “Jayant Narlikar developed the Hoyle-Narlikar theory at age 26. Vishram Bedekar, Vinda Karandikar, PK Atre and Vijay Tendulkar are worthy of being Nobel laureates [they are literary figures, and Atre was also a reformist]. In cricket we produced Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.”

The Marathi ecosphere, the preservation of which is the stated goal of parties like the MNS, is truly special and worth fighting for. Maharashtrians do not want to live in Malabar Hill, even if they can afford it. We are happy in the old world charm of Dadar, Girgaum and Vile Parle East, Mumbai’s Marathi bastions. I was born and raised in Vile Parle East, once the home of the great PL Deshpande (Pu La). My daughter was born here, in a hospital with a small garden built in the 1930s. In Vile Parle East, you can still find houses from the 1920s and 1930s, with owner’s name and year of construction engraved in Marathi. Eateries here sell sabudaana khichdi and besan laadu. This is where I’m most at home. I will be disturbed if Vile Parle East, or any of Mumbai’s vintage, distinctive precincts, lose their identity. Marathi signboards, which the MNS made mandatory for all Mumbai establishments, are a small but important feature. In these matters, I support the MNS.

The death of Tukaram Omble, Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar on the night of 26 November also proved that the warrior spirit of Shivaji had not deserted the modern Maharashtrian. You could say that the actions of these policemen were hasty, maybe too much so, but they were undeniably brave.

The heroic quartet of 26 November, however, was an exception. The reputation we Marathi people have is of lacking in drive or the ability to take risks.

“Killer instinct, aggression and financial acumen are qualities we inherently lack,” says Atul Kasbekar, the photographer. “We are not risk takers. We are a ‘mulga servicela laagla’ (‘the son has settled’) people. The mindset is to work for 40 years, get a gold watch from the company and retire in Pune, though it is changing now.”

The modest success of Maharashtrians in the field of business and their lack of professionalism has for long been a subject of satire. Even today, Chitale Bandhu, the famous sweet makers of Pune, are closed in the afternoon. Afternoons are for napping. On the contrary, other communities are more enterprising. Like the Kamathis from Andhra Pradesh, who flocked to Mumbai in the period 1784–1845. These were watershed years for the city’s infrastructural development. The Mahim Causeway was built during this time. Seven islands blended into one.

Similarly, when the ship-building industry moved from Surat to Bombay in the 18th century, so did Gujarati workmen. If it meant snapping ties with their soil and traditions, so be it. This is the opposite of Maharashtrians, who, let alone the state, do not even want to leave their suburb. “I have known Marathi girls who loved only boys with the right Pin code,” says a young Maharashtrian mother-of-two. She is a financial consultant who, in her spare time, exasperates herself over the smugness of upper-caste Maharashtrians. “Maharashtrian girls do not want to leave Dadar or Parle East. They don’t love anybody that much,” she says.

The insistence on the use of Marathi by the MNS, due to which the simple formality of ‘oath taking’ has become an adventure sport, is ironic. This is because Maharashtrians themselves sometimes ditch Marathi when they meet another Maharashtrian. For some strange reason, they feel shy about conversing in their mother tongue.

“I observe this when I tour overseas,” Dilip Prabhavalkar says.

It is evident in Mumbai, too. A classmate at the Xavier Institute of Communications did not like being Maharashtrian. He did not particularly like being Indian either. The day ‘Sant Xavier Institute’ was painted in Devnagri script on one of the entrances at the college, he was horrified. The only Marathi word this boy knew was a curse word. A year after college, it was funny to see him at the Cricket Club of India at a launch of a book on Sunil Gavaskar, a man proud of his roots. Gavaskar would have had interesting things to say to this unhappy man trapped in the wrong language. One hopes he got a culture change operation done since, and is happy wherever he is today.

The reluctance to embrace their own language is part of the general apathy Maharashtrians exhibit towards their own. Marathi pride, which rises in Maharashtrians when they are reminded of it on the front pages of newspapers, seldom inspires an upper-class Maharashtrian to uplift the poor and lower castes.

A Maharashtrian friend remembers, “We were travelling to New York City from Mumbai via Frankfurt. Two ladies from Kolhapur, one in her thirties and the other a senior citizen, were on the flight. They were village people, clueless about baggage, bathrooms, immigration, customs. Several Maharashtrians were on the flight. None of them offered to help the women. I couldn’t take it after a point and guided them through everything, even the immigration at John F Kennedy airport.”

If Maharashtrians do not care about their people, who will?

While some have a strange quarrel with Marathi, other Marathi people of a certain time wrestle with English. They speak it with a strong Marathi accent. Else, they resort to innovation or literal translation. The most memorable take on ‘Marathi English’ was done in Chimanrao, a TV serial based on the character created by the writer CV Joshi. This was in the Doordarshan era. Chimanrao, played by Prabhavalkar, gets a bout of conjunctivitis. He calls his office and says, “My eyes have come,” the Marathi term for the ailment being ‘dole yene’ (dole means eyes, yene means to come).

It was thus common for us to carry a complex about the way we spoke English. But this is not the case anymore. Middle-class Marathi children now go to English-medium schools. They watch Western sitcoms. “Kids on Karve Road call each other ‘dude’,” a Pune bred colleague says. “The language complex was limited to the generations that studied in the Marathi medium,” says Prabhavalkar.

Also, while Maharashtrians believe themselves to be culturally and intellectually superior, physically they feel inferior. Marathi people are wary of ‘those Punjabis and Sindhis’, who are cocky, robust and rich. This is a transient complex which is overcome with time and exposure to the world. But it does affect our confidence at certain phases in our lives. Most generations of Maharashtrians have experienced this, save for the current, which, like all young urban Indians of today, is worldly and with fewer regional traits.

I played some tennis and badminton in my boyhood. Before the tournaments, the fear of superior opponents would creep up on me. If my opponent had an innocuous name like ‘Satish’, I would be okay. If he was a ‘Tarun’, if he sounded like a kid from Khar or Bombay Gymkhana, I would be worried. Hours would be spent visualising Tarun. He would be fair and tall, unlike me. He would be a student of Jamnabai Narsee or Cathedral who ate tuna sandwiches in the recess, not poli-bhaaji (roti-sabzi). He would have a large kit bag and swagger on to court like Boris Becker. By the time I reported for the match, I would have lost half the battle.

A troubled young man called Sakharam Gatne is the subject of a chapter by Pu La in his book Vyakti aani Valli. Sakharam, scrawny and bleak and an obsessive reader, approaches Deshpande for an autograph. The writer declines, but takes pity when he finds him standing around ‘like a broom in a room corner’. Deshpande sends for Sakharam, signs his book and maintains contact with him till he is married and soundly on the road of life. Sakharam’s disposition misleads the writer into guessing that he belongs to the lower strata of society. But he is actually the son of a wealthy man. He is just too well-read to be happy. Many Maharashtrians have a bit of Sakharam Gatne in them. They may have much going for them and be well off, but their countenance may not suggest so.

Marathi people with such complexes see other communities as usurpers. Conniving political parties like the MNS encourage and exploit this condition. For both the MNS and Marathi people to improve their prospects, they need to stop being foolish.