November 18th, 2012

You Will Not Take a Taxi, You Will Mourn

Bal Thackeray has died, and so has my father.

On the way to the station, I stopped to buy the Times of India, just to catch up. Newspaper sellers were the only thing open, and by “open”, I mean doing business on makeshift tables of plywood on sawhorses, surrounded by tarped-over fruit stands, some with the sellers still sleeping atop them. When Bal Thackeray dies, when the leader of the Shiv Sena political party has gone to that great editorial cartoon in the sky, his distinctive dark-rimmed glasses worn even in the coffin (so says the Times) when the Tiger is finally at rest, the poor get to sleep in.

It’s fitting, really, that a man who so firmly championed the people—well, some of the people—would give them a day off with his death. Thackeray was “a great admirer of Hitler and I am not ashamed to say so!” though he added the usual dodge of “I do not agree with all the methods he employed.” Thackeray’s Jews, job-stealers, and interlopers were the Muslim minority, non-Hindus, non-Marathi people, anyone not a son of the greater-Mumbai soil. Remember in Slumdog Millionaire, when stick-wielding mobs overrun the slum, killing Dev Patel’s character’s mother? Riot courtesy Shiv Sena, incited by Bal Thackeray.

Mumbai is Mumbai and not Bombay because Thackeray wished it so. The slippery turn of phrase is this—anyone writing writes the new name, but only foreigners and government officials speak “Mumbai,” with the careful politeness of a young man meeting his prospective arranged-wife’s parents.

It is both my homage and my revenge that my father’s ashes are with me, in a cocktail shaker, in Bombay. I promised him before he died, “I’ll take you places you haven’t been yet, it will be like we’re taking a trip together.” I’d like to say he gave hearty approval, but I can’t remember. My visits to him flow together in a haze of bright sunshine and cafeteria food spooned into his mouth, the bosomy black nurses not minding, or pretending not to mind, his familiarity; his racism subsumed by physical need. I do know that he laughed, that he didn’t say no. And if he had?

Whoever’s left alive gets to tell the story.

The Times reports that Thackeray’s family came to his deathbed, soberly printing a schedule of the times of arrival of daughters-in-law (one ‘estranged’), the son and political heir, the nephew and political upstart who formed a splinter party. The paper points out—twice—that the nephew arrived after Bal had breathed his last, either the nephew or the Times making a political statement that I don’t know enough to recognize.

The political statement Shiv Sena is making is this: you will mourn. When death was declared, word went out, shops must close, taxis and rickshaws will stop running. The police urged all non-emergency travel to cease. Buses reduced their schedules. Theatres stopped performances halfway through. Small bands of hoodlums roved the streets telling shopkeepers to close, smashing the neon sign of a shop that stayed open. Only chemists (drugstores that sell only drugs and small sundries) were allowed to stay open a few more hours, but even they are shut this morning. The streets of Mumbai, normally choked with taxis, cars, mopeds and motorcycles, can be crossed without the Frogger-style run for your life (it’s best to fix your eyes on the sidewalk across and keep moving at a steady pace, looking both ways only slows you down). Even the beggars at the Gateway of India are at best half-hearted. Only one garland-seller makes eye contact en route to the Taj, her strings of frangipani still fresh and glossy white at 9AM.

My father’s funeral—perhaps it was a wake—was in a tiki bar. His sports bar had, unbeknownst to me, been decked out with palm frond awnings and tropically-colored pennants, the dart board and pinball machines mercifully silent but still glowing with red and yellow electric light, the colors of India. I had come with something to say in mind, but my stepmother reassured me “Your dad’s friend Mike is coming, he’ll do it.” People drank, quietly, and my brother and sister and I stood near the table with pictures and sandwich fixings, letting people come and greet us, not knowing my father’s friends any more. Somewhere were the people who came in roaring drunk while my mother shushed them; somewhere were the people who played cards for money, who bought gold in Guatemala and golfed in ugly pants. Somewhere was my father and the promise of a pony; somewhere was the summer he and I learned to get along.

There are only men in the Mumbai streets, or mostly men. Men and police officers. The officers wear khaki and buzz cuts and look military in the way that Third World policemen do and often are. They carry riot batons, three-foot plastic rods with leather handles; they wear bulletproof vests. Small groups of them are outside the movie theatres, in case anyone tries to open the theatre, or tries to smash it up. You will mourn. A larger squad is on the platform at Dadar station, the primary arrival point for mourners coming to Shivaji Park today, where Thackeray’s body will lie in state-that-is-not-State. There’s the strangeness—he was a politician without an office. As party leader, he exerted tremendous influence, saying once, “If one starts digging whatever masjids (mosques) are there, one will find Hindu temples,” then denying he meant that Hindus should raze Muslim places of worship. But he never held elected office, instead working as a kingmaker, an influencer who had to be asked by the Prime Minister to make an appeal to his followers for peace, from the prison he’d been locked in for stirring them up to begin with.

My father’s power was this: he could make money from nothing, and he remembered names. When Mike never showed up, my stepmother asked if I would speak after all, and I told my favorite story about my dad:

I started working in my dad’s pawnshop when I was fourteen. My first day, he showed me what the fees were, how to fill out the paperwork that went to the police with every item, and how to use the gun.

“Now remember, anyone comes in here to rob the store, you give ‘em whatever they want. Ring trays, cash out of the safe, hand it over. Then when they turn to run out, you shoot ‘em in the back. Shoot to kill so there’s only one person left to tell what happened.”

Whoever’s left alive gets to tell the story.

My brother was too shy to make the rounds, but after leading a toast to my dad, I went from table to table, hearing memories, asking, “Can you tell me something you remember about my father?” Almost everyone had something to say.

            He taught me to play cards.

            He schooled me at pool. (My dad was a pool shark? Who knew?)

            He remembered my name.

            He remembered my name.

            He always remembered my name.

Because that is what we want. That is the pride of hearing “Ali-kazam” called weakly by my father from his hospital bed, my name and his nickname for me things he retained until he died. That is the pride of being Marathi, Hindi, people of Shiv Sena, the people who are from here, the people who should rule. One of the chosen. One of us.

I was in South Africa when my father died, unreachable by the many messages my stepmother left on my American phone. My sister spoke to him; I still speak to him in my head, hoping one day to say the thing that says goodbye.

That is why I am eating breakfast at the Taj, the five-star hotel in the heart of the tourist area being the one place I guessed rightly is still serving food today, to expats and emirs and American tweens in cut-off shorts with purple hair and rich parents. That is why I am going to Dadar station, making the walk to Shivaji Park, where maybe there will be a riot or maybe just a hush, but everywhere, there will be mourning.

As I walked to the funeral (attended by almost a million people, 99% men) my one regret was that if I died in a riot, I wasn't able to get to internet first to post this. Spoiler: I did not die in a riot.