IT seemed like a bizarre train of thought at first but in hindsight perhaps an agreeable one, that as Bal Thackeray lay dying in a Mumbai hospital I was comparing renowned singers Lata Mangeshkar and Noorjehan in my mind.
Here was an Indian star that I thought no end of, one who symbolised the warm, calming hug her people badly needed after their bruising tryst with foreign rule and an even more lacerating struggle to win freedom.
That was Lata Mangeshkar. She could switch from a gentle morning pick-me-up in a Marathi ‘Bhoopali’ to a more nuanced love expressed in Persianised Urdu, linking two diverse strands of free India’s cultural mix. She could dredge out Ghalib’s soul with a purist’s diction and sway with Shakeel’s rustic verse in an eastern UP dialect for Dhanno in Ganga Jamuna with the gentlest inflection of her vocal cords.
Perhaps she was a born polyglot, I would think with admiration. How else could she deliver Iqbal’s Kabhi ae haqeeqat e muntazar with the swirl of a dervish?
‘When I bowed my forehead in supplication/the earth itself pleaded with me: /Your heart is riveted to an icon of stone/Why do you waste your time in namaaz?’
I have leaned on Iqbal’s complex lines, which Lata sang with uncluttered ease only to illustrate the romance she engendered in the halcyon days that came with independence.
Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi: what a team they made for a newly freed people. Their duets, so popular in Pakistan, in a sense defied the idea of Pakistan itself with their true notes. In some ways the duo single-handedly undid the communal damage that came with the partition, not just in India but in Pakistan too, where she remained a household favourite at the head of other great singers.
Then something snapped last week. In her moment of personal trauma, Lata Mangeshkar bared her heart. She revealed she felt orphaned by Bal Thackeray’s passing away, but she didn’t stop there.
She went on to describe the Shiv Sena chief as a “Hindu hriday samraat”, a ruler of Hindu hearts. We knew that it was how many of his admirers, his less intellectually gifted followers, shall we say, saw him.
People who knew her claimed that Lata Mangeshkar donated a sum of her earnings to the Shiv Sena. But all this was seen as a tithe decent folks often pay after 1992-1993 to keep nuisance at bay. But now she revealed she may have been a devout bhakta of Thackeray, the self-proclaimed fascist whose adulation of Hitler only matched his love for Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin.
Let’s leave alone his hatred of Muslims and of Pakistan. I thought a majority of people Thackeray hated were Hindus. They were Hindu Gujaratis, Hindu Biharis or their cousins from Uttar Pradesh, Hindu Tamils and others from South India, communists, Brahmins.
They were all Hindu, if they must be given that identity at all, but they were all targeted albeit selectively in different stages of the rise of the Shiv Sena. In one stroke Lata Mangeshkar had disowned millions of her ardent fans.
I am not even broaching Thackeray’s documented role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Did the singing diva of India, decorated with the country’s highest civilian honour, agree with the Ayodhya sacrilege? And did she get to read the Justice Shri Krishna Commission report on the anti-Muslim pogroms in Mumbai that followed the outrage in Ram’s birthplace? The killings, according to the report, were carried out by Thackeray’s foot soldiers, that she admires, in 1992-93. Is that what made her proud of the ruler of Hindu hearts?
Lata Mangeshkar has said she learnt some of the tricks of playback singing from listening to Noorjehan. They had a lot in common, including an army of followers that remained loyal to each, often to the exclusion of the other. They also sang for their armies, the real fighting ones.
And yet, as far as I can tell, Noorjehan would never have wooed religious fundamentalists, much less those who earn their keep from fomenting ill-will towards India. She wouldn’t have been a darling of Faiz if she had.
Thackeray of course had bigger fish to fry than playing The Godfather to his favourite admirer. He was a creature of India’s emerging consensus and that is the scarier part. It was his ability to cut across the political redlines, which anointed him as a more successful fascist than his other rightwing rivals have been shown to be.
Consider the grovelling and fawning news channels. And look at the grief writ on movie star Amitabh Bachchan’s face at Sunday’s funeral, or take corporate czar Anil Ambani who looked one of the most bereaved in the mêlée of Mumbai’s elite.
Both of them support the rightwing claimant to India’s top job, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and both have political associations that shore up the supposedly secular government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The fact is that Thackeray fulfilled corporate India’s need to suspend democracy if the going got tough and this would be done by a national consensus. He represented a militant, aggressive pro-market quest of the Indian state, one that can only be placated by bludgeoning its own people.
Every party needs to outdo the other in the bloody act. Lata Mangeshkar would appear to be a misfit in the gory denouement of India that Thackeray’s Shiv Sena revelled in. Else she could allow herself to beguile her fans with the siren call of fascism.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org