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The tall man watching Chowpatty

November 09, 2007 15:59 IST

The monsoon in Mumbai was winding down and Ganesh Chaturthi had just been celebrated when it struck me that this would be a good time to pay my respects to a man I much admire. So, on a recent bright and clear morning, on my way to work, I stopped by at Chowpatty Beach, that small stretch of sand at the start of Marine Drive that is an island of calm in hectic Mumbai.

It was nearing nine that morning and everyone other than a few stragglers had finished their morning exercise, walks and gone.

The few men and women still lounging around the benches strewn along the edge of the beach were, I guess, folks who had no particular place to go or nothing particularly important to do. On nearby Marine Drive, cars whizzed by in both directions; Mumbaites in their usual demonic hurry to get to work.

What I'd come to see was there alright, if anything taller than I remember -- nearly 10-feet tall and when you add another 10 feet for the pedestal it rested on, it was not easy from nearby to take the whole picture in.

There he stood, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, veteran of many a battle, forever impatient to set his country free, now caught in an unhurried pose. One hand clutching a book, perhaps the Bhagvad Gita commentary that he wrote when the British incarcerated him for six long years in a tiny cell in a remote jail.

The other held a walking-stick lightly. One foot was slightly ahead of the other as if he was setting out on a march for one of the many causes he felt so passionate about. He stood there alert as if watching carefully all who entered Chowpatty Beach.

On Ganesh Chaturthi day, millions pour past his watchful eye to immerse the Ganesh idol in the sea here. And as every schoolboy in India is taught, it was Tilak who thought up the public version of what was till then a private festival to get around a fearful British colonial government prohibition of large numbers of Indians gathering at one place. Early Ganesh processions even carried pictures of Garibaldi, the unfier of Italy.

I wonder whether schoolchildren are taught nowadays why Tilak was sent for his first spell in prison. It was nearing the end of the 19th century, Mumbai and Poona were being ravaged by plague, which had spread here through merchant ships that traded with Hong Kong.

The British colonial administration started forcibly removing plague victims and isolating them in "plague hospitals". Nineteenth century science knew of no other solution to plague other than isolating people who had already got it to prevent the disease from spreading to others.

The high-handed way this isolation was done created an outcry among the population. Things came to a head when the British official in charge of this segregation effort was assassinated in Poona. Tilak was implicated, probably falsely, as a conspirator and sent to jail.

All this may make Tilak look like an obscurantist who came in the way of medical progress; he was far from that. In the middle of this turmoil, his newspapers in Poona were carrying up-to-date accounts of what Koch, the German scientist, was doing to isolate the plague virus.

I wonder whether our schoolchildren are taught to make this distinction about Tilak's actions -- the nationalist who objected to the way citizens were being herded into plague hospitals and the modernist who followed eagerly the progress that science was making in finding an answer to the plague problem.

From where I stood, beside Tilak, I could see that Tilak's gaze would have taken in the row of glitzy shops that have sprung up across the road on Marine Drive: a Levi jeans shop, a Renault car showroom, one for Arrow shirts, an immensely popular outlet of Café Coffee Day that is packed at all times of the day or night with young trendy, jeans-wearing college students.

What would Tilak have made of all this? When he died, in 1920, it was far from clear whether or when India would wrest Independence and Tilak till his end was uncompromising in his demand for Swaraj. But he was also the man who in 1880 had co-founded an English medium school in Pune, 'The New English School', and an English language newspaper, The Maratha.

For that matter what would Tilak have made of what some environmentalists say -- that the immensely popular Ganesh festivities that culminate in thousands of Ganesh statues being immersed in the sea cause environmental damage.

The Ganesh statues were, in Tilak's time, made of harmless clay and painted over with vegetable dyes, but present-day versions are made of plaster of paris, which, environmentalists say, contains gypsum, sulphur, phosphorus and magnesium and are painted over with stuff that contains mercury, cadmium, lead and carbon.

Tilak, ever the modernist, would probably have led another movement, this time at the head of the environmentalists who suggest that permanent idols made of brass or stone be used, that a symbolic immersion be done so that the same idol could be used again the next year and oppose the use of thermocol and plastic in decorations.

And, ever the great activist, he may have carefully watched the immersions from his vantage point at Chowpatty to make sure that these socially important directions are followed.

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Ajit Balakrishnan