November 18th – Mumbai at a Standstill

If you have been following the news on India, you would have come to know of the massive paralysis the city of Mumbai experienced on the 17th and 18th of November. Mumbai was at a standstill over the death of Mahrashtra’s political supremo, Bal Thackeray. In all fairness, Thackeray was not a politician, neither did he have any political hold over Mumbai. But, what he did have, was a great deal of power over the masses, especially the Maharashtrians, who believe that Thackeray did a whole lot for their social and economic well being and upliftment.

Bal Thackeray

Bal Thackeray

I do not want to go into the history or the biography of Thackeray. You can look it up yourself on the internet, where there is no dearth of information on the man, by any stretch of imagination. I do want to share my experience as I witnessed, first-hand, the quickened pace at which Mumbai went into shut-down mode, within a matter of hours.

Thackeray has been severely ailing for a while, and was believed to be clinically dead a couple of days before Diwali itself. On November 15th, there was rumor about his impending demise, and by 12 pm that afternoon, the hustle and bustle of the city was reduced to pin-drop silence. I was amazed how, just upon the suspicion that he may be dead, most of the shops had shut down, people ventured into and stayed in their homes, even chaiwalas (tea vendors) abandoned their stalls, and the main roads were laden with police. It was unusually quiet, and some of my own clients who had appointments with me, did not feel safe to make it for them, even in their chauffeur driven cars.

That was the 15th and the next day everything was back to normal because his followers thought that he was OK. It was not made public that he was barely surviving on a ventilator. On the 17th of November, which was a Saturday, I was at Marine Lines (in South Mumbai), at an electric shop, exchanging light bulbs. I stepped out to indulge in some street food and the vendor told me he was in a hurry to shut down his stall because they just got wind that the great one had passed away. While he was making the food, the lanky, tall man, stopped a few feet from the stall and started yelling at the vendor, cursing him in Hindi and telling him that he needs to shut down his stall immediately. This guy was obviously one of Thackeray’s goons, more politely referred to as a Sainik or member of the Shiv Sena, Thackeray’s party. It did not matter to the man that a lady was standing there. I was amazed by what I witnessed around me…people running helter-skelter, shutters of shops being slammed shut in a matter of minutes, people scrambling for taxis or any kinds of modes of transportation to make it back safely to their houses…even the grocer stores and convenient stores had to shut down, which meant that, if you did not have any food or milk or other basic necessities in your home, you would have to wait till Monday to get them. Mumbai was going on a bandh (literally means to halt or stop or shut down). Only hospitals and medical stores could stay open.

It took us 2 hours to get home, a ride that usually takes us about 45-60 minutes. Here is a picture of the traffic jam and the cars that moved at snails pace, all in a hurry to be safe in doors:

We finally got home and found that we had just enough of food to tide us over Saturday and Sunday. I have seen Mumbai slow down on the weekends, but have never witnessed graveyard silence in the mega metropolis. One asks, why was there a bandh? Why did Mumbai, the financial capital of India, come to a standstill over the death of one man? A lot of people are asking if it was out of fear or respect. I believe it was out of pure fear.

The newspapers read, “Shopkeepers were not asked to shut their shops down, but did so out of respect for Thackeray”, a man who is believed to have done a lot for the state of Maharashtra. I say that is bull shit – it was all done out of fear and even the Mumbai police could not do a thing about it. By Sunday morning, when the funeral was to take place, 20 lakh (2 hundred thousand) people from all over Maharashtra, had made their way to Mumbai to pay their final respects to the their beloved savior (even the funeral of Mother Teresa did not attract such masses). The streets of Mumbai were empty and not a single shop was open. I have never witnessed such a sight in Mumbai and was beyond shocked to see how people did not dare to get out, unless they really needed to.

What was even shocking was that the man was given a State Funeral, something that even Mahatma Gandhi was not given. He was wrapped in the Indian flag, and on what grounds, I will never know. Thackeray was neither a politician, nor a leader of the country; he was a mere mortal who was a splendid orator and was responsible for many a controversies in Mumbai. I am not denying that he did do good for the locals, but I believe he did so at a heavy cost which the common man had to pay (again, you may do your own research and come to your own conclusions on the man, who incidentally, was also a great fan of Adolf Hitler).

In the tri-color flag

In the tri-color flag

It is the 18th today and Mumbai is back to life and fortunately, there were no riots or hooliganism that broke out because of the throngs of people that invaded the city. Thackeray and his followers, his principles and his conduct, will always be controversial, and Mumbai has always been and will be in the grip of fear, every time something concerning the Shiv Sena party occurs.

This experience has really re-defined democracy for me, which clearly, we are lacking in India. If one has to shut down his/her shops for fear of losing their lives, how is this a democracy? This sort of rubbish was not be tolerated in the USA and people would not have been forced to stay in lock-down, where even the police appeared to be crippled and useless.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. livefromsfo
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 11:10:15

    Nice post about Bal Thackeray. BTW 200,000 = 2 lakhs, if it was 20 lakhs then indeed it is 2 million!


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