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Saffron And Cigars: Balasaheb, The Bon Vivant

21/06/2016 12:14 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Farzana Contractor

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I wish Balasaheb Thackeray was alive to raise a toast to the 50th anniversary celebrations of his saffron-hued, ultra-right political party, the Shiv Sena, today. He would have done it with a glass of French wine. Jauntily puffing on a Cuban cigar. I knew him well. Not only as the Shiv Sena supremo, whose fire and brimstone speeches were legendary, but also as a bon vivant with a taste for good food, fine wines and full-bodied cigars. This avatar of him few outside Matoshree knew. Balasaheb revealed it to me over the many times I interviewed him.

It was both the easiest and most difficult assignment to interview Balasaheb. Difficult, because he did not easily grant interviews. Easy, because he did all the talking. He asked the questions, recorded my answers, raised issues, peppered his talk with witticisms and criticisms, all delivered with deadpan panache. I admired that in him, his rhetoric. Just as I did his ability to sway masses, draw crowds and shut down Mumbai as his whim dictated. A dubious distinction, I agree. But also an indication of the power he had over the common man. And what do politicians want if not for power? Though Balasaheb was cut of a different cloth. He was a political party leader, not a politician. He never contested elections. But when the Shiv Sena formed the government in Maharashtra with the BJP in 1995, he famously ran the state by remote control from Matoshree.

[P]olitics killed my appetite. I was a foodie. We used to order from the best restaurants. My wife, who was a good cook, liked Chinese food. I like Thai.

My last interview of him was over a glass of wine. We discussed food and wine, and cigars, which was his new passion. Also cricket, because cricket was one of his first loves. And players from Mumbai, like Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar before him, were his favorite cricketers. He either praised them or denounced them publicly, depending on how well they played against Pakistan, the cricket team Balasaheb liked to hate most of all. India was touring South Africa then, and Indian wickets were falling like ninepins, Balasaheb switched off the TV in disgust. Outside, it was Navratri. He commented wryly, "Here people are playing dandiya, there the South Africans are taking our dandi."

I can give up smoking. But it helps me tide over my loneliness. I'm often miserable. And alone."

That day Balasaheb talked with great authority on the restaurants of old Bombay ("Mumbai," he said forcefully) that served Continental cuisine. He was fond of the Italian pastas at Gourdon in Churchgate. "But that was in the 1950s, when I was a cartoonist with the Free Press," he wistfully recalled. "Unfortunately, politics killed my appetite. I was a foodie. We used to order from the best restaurants. My wife, who was a good cook, liked Chinese food. I like Thai. Now I don't relish food. There are too many visitors, too many phone calls. No sleep, no time to read. I miss my appetite. I now eat simple Indian vegetarian food, steamed or boiled. No mutton biryani and pomfret curry anymore. I like light food, no chillies and no spices. Rice, dal, some vegetables, two, three phulkas. Perhaps a coconut-based dessert. And no tea and coffee. To think that in my Free Press days I used to live on cashew nuts and cold coffee!"

He was elegantly sipping a French white wine and vigorously puffing a Havana. He knew I was a cigar smoker and nodded generously at the humidor standing on his table. But out of some regard for him I did not take a cigar. Instead, I accepted a glass of red wine. A big mistake. It was utterly dreadful. Red wines are best served at room temperature, European room temperature of between 15-18°C that is; at Matoshree in Bandra East it was 34°C. And Balasaheb didn't believe in chilling his wines.

I gave up beer because it has too many calories. Now I drink wine, French or Indian. Sometimes champagne, a glass or two.

"How is the wine?" he politely asked me. I dodged the question and pointed at the cigar. "You are never seen without a pipe or cigar," I said. "Cigar nowadays," he admitted, blowing smoke at me. "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 with eau de cologne!" He got his cigars from friends travelling abroad, and he favoured the Churchill-sized Havana. "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 started smoking in 1954 when he was a cartoonist at Free Press. "I suffered a cold the year round. Smoking, I discovered, dried my nose. Those days it was Peacock-brand cheroots from Tiruchirappalli. Until someone convinced me a pipe was more my style. And then cigars," Balasaheb said. He liked 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 helps me to relax. It keeps me going... and from returning to loneliness."

[Red wine is better for the heart] but white wine suits me fine. Besides, who says I have a heart? You presswallahs say I am heartless!

Earlier, he used to drink warm beer. I landed up at Matoshree once with a case of Heineken procured from the friendly neighbourhood bootlegger. This was before liberalization had set in and the markets opened up. Balasaheb graciously accepted it and then confessed he had given up beer. "Beer also I started drinking during my cartoonist days," he remembered, "and I enjoyed it 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 wine, French or Indian. Sometimes champagne, a glass or two."

"Why white wine?" I asked. "Isn't red better for the heart?"

Balasaheb Thackeray, as was his wont, had the last word.

"I guess it should be," he sarcastically replied, "but white wine suits me fine. Besides, who says I have a heart? You presswallahs say I am heartless!"

Balasaheb Thackeray picture by Farzana Contractor.

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