The mortal remains of Bal Thackeray, a Hindutva mascot and flagbearer of Marathi pride, were consigned to flames as lakhs of mourners joined the Shiv Sena founder’s grieving family to bid him a tearful farewell, with the city observing a virtual shutdown.
In a spontaneous outpouring of grief, a sea of humanity, unprecedented in recent memory, descended on the streets leading from “Matoshree”, Thackeray’s Bandra home, to Shivaji Park, to catch the last glimpse of the uncrowned king of Mumbai.
As several times in life, the Thackeray phenomenon was in evidence once again in death as he brought Mumbai to a halt with all marketplace, from the swanky malls to the tiny tea stalls and ‘paan-beedi’ kiosks, closed and all roads leading to “Matoshree”, Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar and Shivaji Park, where his last rites were performed.
Loud roars of “Parat ya parat ya Balasaheb parat ya (Come back, come back, Balasaheb come back), Kon ala re, kon ala Shiv Senecha wagh ala (Who has come, who has come, Shiv Sena’s tiger has come)” and “Balasaheb amar rahe” (long live Balasaheb) rent the air as an emotional Uddhav, the youngest son of the departed leader and Sena’s executive president, lit the pyre.
In a reflection of the respect Thackeray commanded across the board, a galaxy of politicians, from allies to rivals, film stars to captains of industry were attendance.
Those present included long-time political rival and personal friend Sharad Pawar, BJP chief Nitin Gadkari, senior party leader L K Advani, leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, Opposition leader in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, his Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and Union ministers Praful Patel and Rajiv Shukla.
Superstar Amitabh Bachchan, with whom Thackeray shared a long-standing bond, actor Nana Patekar, filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Mahesh Manjarekar, industrialists Anil Ambani and Venugopal Dhoot and Zee’s Subhash Chandra reached Shivaji Park hours ahead of the funeral.
In a measure of respect and influence Thackeray commanded over generations of Maharashtrians, the government allowed his funeral to take place at Shivaji Park, never a venue for such events, and accorded him a state funeral, the first public funeral after Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s in 1920.
Governor K Sankaranarayanan and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan placed wreathes on the Sena patriarch’s body.
A contingent of Mumbai police gave a gun salute and buglers sounded the last post, a rare honour for somebody who never held any official position.
Even as elsewhere Mumbai turned into a ghost city with not a taxi or an autorickshaw in sight and markets, restaurants, cinema theatres and muliplexes closed, the Bandra-Shivaji Park stretch came alive with slogan-shouting Sena supporters.
As the firebrand leader’s final journey began from “Matoshree”, his son Uddhav could not control emotions and broke down atop the flower-bedecked truck carrying among others his wife Rashmi and sons Tejas and Aditya, the ‘Yuva Sena’ chief.
Conspicuous by his absence from the truck carrying a massive poster of Thackeray against the image of the tiger, the Sena’s symbol, with saffron flags aflutter, was his nephew and MNS boss Raj Thackeray who chose to walk some distance with the mourners before taking care of arrangements for the funeral at Shivaji Park.
As the procession inched towards “Shiv Sena Bhavan”, the party headquarters, tens of thousands supporters and onlookers lined the streets, balconies and flyovers, with many clambering atop lamp posts and trees to catch a sight of the leader.
Many showered the mourners with flower petals. It took the cortege nearly 8 hours to cover the 10 km stretch between “Matoshree” and Shivaji Park.
The cortege made a brief halt at “Shiv Sena Bhavan”, built by Thackeray in 1977, where his body was kept for top party leaders to pay homage to the Shiv Sena patriarch. It was out of bounds for the common Sena workers.