On death vigil
Mumbaikars waited this past week with bated breath, fearing the backlash the death of an ailing octogenarian would cause. And giving them a blow by blow account of the entire final week of Balasaheb's life were around 200 of us, print and television reporters. Waiting outside Matoshree for almost a week, there were times when even we wondered if we were being insensitive by what some described as waiting for a death. But for every such question we got, there were at least 10 others who asked us if Saheb was well out of 50 per cent concern for Saheb and 50 per cent for their own safety if there was a backlash. And as each day passed, we realised, we were waiting outside for the people who had asked us these questions.
With the disclaimer out of the way, we can now talk of what all went behind the scenes while covering what was the death of one of the most iconic figures in Mumbai. The first few days the media was told that it was touch and go. We had to be prepared for the inevitable. But most of us hardly were. Some were called back from their Diwali offs and instead of having karanji with our siblings, on Bhai Beej, we were standing vigil outside Matoshree without food or water. All the shops in the vicinity had closed anticipating violence.
Keeping us company were the poor constables of nearby police stations, their leaves too cancelled. As we stood battling the mosquitoes of Kalanagar through the nights, both policemen and media personnel were also worried about the increasing number of emotional and aggressive Shiv Sainiks gathering outside the barricades. And the flashpoint came on the second night when some Sainiks accused all of us of almost wanting the Sena chief dead by standing there. The anger spilled out on a rival channel's OB van and camera crew. Understanding that they were much less in number and would not be able to control the mob, the police asked us to move beyond the barricades and temporarily stop all coverage. The Sainiks only calmed down after Uddhav himself came out and addressed others.
The next day, the police were much better prepared. A makeshift enclosure for the media was made in a government compound nearby and the RAF was called. Our offices also realised the shortage of food and water and started sending food packets. By then every Sena leader and all the celebrities coming out of Matoshree kept saying that Balasaheb was actually getting better. It was unclear if he was indeed well or if the family was in denial. After all logic said that nothing explained the heavy police presence and constant stream of visitors and celebrities if everything was truly alright.
But even all this dress rehearsal did not fully prepare us or the police for the moment the inevitable happened. Saturday afternoon when the announcement was made, bereaved Shiv Sainiks lost their cool. They rushed past the barricades and their first target was the media standing near the enclosure. Shoot the messenger was their first instinct. All the 200 of us had to squeeze ourselves into the government compound through a small opening made by a broken panel in the iron gate. The cameras were again switched off.
But the story had to be told not just because there were Mumbaikars anxious to know if they could step out of their homes the next day, but also because Balasaheb's was a personality that changed the course of Maharashtra politics. And so we had to take the risk of earning the ire of the Sainiks and keep the cameras rolling. Within a few hours, the loudspeakers set up outside Matoshree asked the Sainiks to restrain themselves. We left from there to prepare for the funeral procession the next day that we knew would be overwhelming.
Perhaps the only other time Mumbai reporters had seen a huge procession, several kilometers long, was when India won the T20 final. But that paled in comparison to what we saw on Sunday. People had started gathering from 4:30 am. The 6-kilometre-long stretch between Matoshree to Shivaji Park was entirely closed to traffic. Lakhs of people were out on the streets, thousands others were swarming the balconies and terraces of buildings on the route. By then, the Shiv Sena loudspeakers set up all across the major points of the routes had advised the cadre not to create any ruckus. The Mumbai police was out in full force, a special word of appreciation for the constabulary, which worked tirelessly. Gurudwaras had put up langar stalls on the road.
Some residents of Shivaji Park and Matunga were cooking and distributing food packets. The procession, that even in the worst traffic, should have taken an hour, took almost 6 hours as people thronged for a last look of Balasaheb and to touch the hearse. The sea of humanity was unprecendented.
Most of us reporters were objective up until the point we saw Balasaheb's frail body being laid on the funeral pyre. The moment of reality came when Uddhav himself broke down after lighting the pyre. Watching it on the large screens set up across Shivaji Park it suddenly hit us that this man, whom some of us had grown up hearing about and yet others had grown reporting about was really no more. We still had a job to do. We still had to report if the crowds milling out of Shivaji Park created any ruckus. But for that one moment, I believe we were all plain simple men and women, absorbing the reality that death doesn't spare even the fieriest.
As I drove past LJ road and Mahim causeway on Monday morning at 7 am, it was surreal to see all those posters expressing condolence on the death of Balasaheb. The only Maharashtrian 'outsiders' like me had heard of before we had ever thought of moving to Mumbai, was well and truly gone.