“It’s All So Unexpected”

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On the evening of Dussehra, Aditya Thackeray knelt on stage in front of thousands of adoring Shiv Sainiks and accepted a sword from his grandfather Bal Thackeray, clad in silk and seated on a throne. He turned towards the crowd with the sword raised, then bent and touched his head to the ground. The occasion was the Shiv Sena annual Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park.

Next morning, the 20-year-old went back to his ultra-hip college, one of the few in Mumbai to retain the spirit of questioning that colleges are meant to foster. How did his collegemates view him after this medieval-style coronation?

Seems no one had seen it! Responses ranged from, “I didn’t watch TV, exams are on,” to “Not particularly interested in the Shiv Sena, so didn’t watch the rally.”

How do Xavierites view Aditya Thackeray? The boy who initiated the protest that saw one of their texts—Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry—being burnt outside the university, on whose insistence the second year BA syllabus was changed overnight (throwing exam schedules out of gear), is the guy seated next to them in the canteen or in class. Do they confront him with his actions? Do they shun him?

Neither. Everyone carries on as if nothing’s happened! Conversations with final-year students, who’ve known him for the last two years, reveal that not a word has been said to Aditya in college on the withdrawal of Mistry’s novel. And that’s not because they are avoiding him. 

“We’re certainly not going to bring this up with him,” says another. “We have to be in college the rest of the year!”

But his party’s reputation is only part of the  reason; that’s also the reason these students speak only on condition of not being named.

But there is another reason these students are reluctant to discuss the issue with him—his personality. All that he has done in the last three weeks seems totally out of character with the Aditya Thackeray they’ve known, say Xavierites. From all accounts, the youngest Thackeray seemed to have been a normal student: low-profile, no swagger, no name-dropping, security left at the gate. His recent public actions seem even more astonishing to his collegemates because they’ve heard him talk like ‘one of us’.  “He’s voiced the same views about the university that we have. He’s often said a lot of sensible things, and been able to argue them out convincingly.” Even in the political science classes, Aditya hasn’t sounded like a Shiv Sainik. “He has expressed his opinions, but they were not so strong as to make one sit up,” says a political science student.

There’s also his own fondness for literature—the boy lays claims to being a poet. “He’s read out his poetry in college; his father’s a wildlife photographer… How could he want to throttle someone else’s artistic expression?” asks one. “It’s all so unexpected. That worries me—maybe should we have expected this?”

The only conclusion these 20-year-olds can draw to explain his recent conduct is by ascribing it to what they are familiar with: family pressure. “It’s unfair to judge him,” says one. “I don’t think it was entirely his choice,” feels another. 

Says one who claims to know him better than the others, “Look, he did what he had to. He got the attention he needed for the rally and his launch. That’s it; the matter’s over. He was a literature student last year; had he wanted, he could have got the book withdrawn then. Why now? At some point of time, you have to do some things for your family.” This boy’s opinion of Aditya hasn’t changed; he insists the youngest Thackeray is a “very sweet person, compared to the sons of other politicians”.

It’s important to say here that none of these students approve of Aditya’s act. Most of them have signed the online petition against the withdrawal of the text. (Significantly, the petition doesn’t name Aditya, and in fact, urges the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena to a debate on the book.) They appreciate their principal Father Frazer Mascarenhas’ statement on the issue, put up on the college website (which too, does not name Aditya). Partly, they avoid talking to Aditya Thackeray about the issue because they fear their anger would spill out if they did. 

In fact, say the students, Aditya’s act has generated “a lot of hatred”. “With his clout, he could have done so much good. He could have changed the image of his party. If one is given all the opportunity to make a difference, to go and burn a text is not the way to start off. He could have said ‘No’, even if his party or family needed this.”

Yet, they insist, the hatred is not against Aditya the human being, but against what he’s done. Sums up one: “It would have been easier to hate him had we not known him. Now, we feel, ‘what a horrible thing’, not ‘what a horrible person.’”