Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Saturday in Mumbai

Bal Thackeray died in Mumbai at 3:30pm on 17 November.  A dozen kilometers north, Swami Kriyananda's discourse began at 5:00.  It made for an interesting combination.  

Bal Thackeray was 86 years old and had been the
"Godfather" of Mumbai politics for forty years, and though unelected to any office, he held Mumbai in his hand.  He was the city's uncrowned king, able to shut it down on a whim, the person to whom politicians, movie moguls, and tycoons paid homage.  Because of him, Bombay became Mumbai and it was he who inflamed nativist anger against "outsiders" coming to the city to "steal" jobs from the sons of Maharashtra.   He aimed his anger first at the Gujaratis and of late, against the Biharis.  In between, it was the Muslims, contributing to the vicious riots in the 1990's.  It was he who pointed the way for his loyal Shiv Sena (army) to follow and do his bidding.  He went unchallenged until Yama came calling.  

Last March upon leaving India, Swami Kriyananda indicated his wish to return later in the year to do a series of lectures in India's major cities.  He had done a very successful one in Mumbai the previous December and it was natural for us to put Mumbai high on the list of places where he would speak.  Working with local Sangha members, we booked Bhaidas Hall, a nice auditorium of 1100 seats for an early evening event on 17 November.  The JW Marriott, a very nice hotel in which Swami could stay, was close by in the Juhu district.  

Filling a big hall is no small undertaking.  Lots of promotion and preliminary classes are needed to attract students, flyers must be printed, buses organized, a stage decorated, audio and video must be coordinated, and all sorts of other logistics attended to.  Over the months leading up to the event, local Sangha members worked extremely hard, doing a fantastic job organizing all the details. Our budget was far less this year than last and we had to make every rupee count if we wanted a crowd to come.  Almost always, there is a bit of chaos at the end as loose ends are tied, but by and large, everything went great and all was ready for Swami's discourse on Saturday.

A group of us drove Swami to Mumbai on Thursday, arriving in the afternoon. Shortly thereafter, I received a text message telling me of a rumor going around the city that Bal Thackeray had died.  Oh oh!  If true, the city would shut down on Friday and possibly for the weekend.  For us, that would be a disaster.  There is a tradition to close up shop when a "big man" like Thackeray goes and it was certain the Shiv Sena would force every shop, vendor and wallah in the city to suspend business, including Bhaidas Hall.  

I immediately checked the internet and started asking if the rumors were true.  The word came, "No, the rumors of his passing are not true!"  The officials who said he had died retracted their statements and claimed he was only gravely ill but getting better, but the text messages continued, saying he had actually died and the government wanted to delay announcing his passing so as not to stop business until the weekend.  Money comes first in Mumbai. It was conspiracy theory at its best.  Whatever the case, we breathed a sigh of relief and prayed for Mr. Thackeray to hang on a little longer if he hadn't already taken his leave.  

Saturday came and by two o'clock, Bhaidas Hall was buzzing. Our preparation team was decorating, setting up tables and arranging displays.  By 4:00 pm, the hall began to fill and the program started on time at 4:30 with a kirtan, fifteen minutes before Swami's arrival. Little did we know that one hour before,  Bal Thackeray's had died and by the time our program began, the news was flashing across a city at a lightning pace.

Swami began speaking at 5:00 pm to an audience of about 750 - 800 people.  I was surprised we hadn't filled the hall but knew from experience that people are often late in India, so I figured it would soon be packed.  Instead, one by one, three or four dozen people slipped out of their seats and left.  The "beep-beep-beep" of incoming text messages was a clue that something was happening.  The audience was distracted and the feeling was flat. Swami gave a great talk but he too could sense something wasn't right and cut his talk short, speaking for only 45 minutes when he almost always goes for an hour.  

What was happening?  When word of Thackeray's death began to circulate, everyone knew the city would close and transportation come to a stop.  Rickshaws would refuse to pick up passengers. Those who received text messages left to catch a ride home as soon as possible to avoid being stranded.  Those who had heard prior to reaching the hall turned home and never came and those who were late, couldn't get into the hall.

As feared, soon after Thackeray's death, members of the Shiv Sena came, demanding of the hall manager he stop the program.  Courageously, he refused, telling the Sena thugs that a spiritual program was in process.  After a bit of haggling, a compromise was reached. In exchange for pulling in the registration tables and closing the gates to late comers, the Sena men didn't interrupt Swami's discourse.  Afterward, Swami was wondering why the audience was so unresponsive and when it was explained to him what had happened he remarked how it was a wonder that so many people had actually come in spite of the situation.  

That evening, after the program, the DGP (Director General of Police) for Mumbai (the top guy in the city) came to meet Swami and offered to personally escort him out of the city the next morning to avoid  any trouble.  True to his word, he came the next day and with red lights flashing, gave Swamiji a police escort to the city's border.  Nayaswami Dhyana and I were scheduled to conduct a followup satsang later that Sunday afternoon but we soon learned it was canceled and we too departed for Pune.  As we exited the city, all streets were deserted and the shops closed. It was the fastest trip across the city I had ever taken. Late Sunday afternoon we reached Pune and it too was completely closed.  

In the days following, thousands of hoardings (billboards) with Thackeray's picture displayed sprang up across the city, one every hundred meters on the main roadways, many of them three or four meters wide.  I imagine they'll stay for some time as who will dare take them down. Thackeray began his career as a political cartoonist and ended up as the most powerful man in Mumbai. Now his son and nephew will fight for control of his political dynasty but I imagine an era has passed and neither will ever rival the power and influence the patriarch once wielded.