Getting an appointment with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray was akin to climbing Mt. Everest. A maze of people around him, everyone rumoured to be "very close" to the 'Tiger' had to be called for seeking a personal meeting with him.
After going through the entire rigmarole and thanks to the intervention of a former party MP, I finally got the green signal - an appointment to interview the Sena supremo for The Week magazine, where I worked then, on April 10, 1999.
Excited and apprehensive, I went along with my photographer colleague Dinesh Parab (now senior photographer, DNA), to be present at the awe-inspiring gates of Matoshree — the Thackeray residence in Bandra East — well before the appointed hour of 11 am.
After clearing the main gate and two rounds of police security, a few tough-looking party activists cast an X-ray vision over us. Then, one of them politely showed us inside to a small room on the ground floor of Matoshri.
It was quite well-appointed without being loud, and we waited on a sofa, almost trembling - both Parab and I were to meet Balasaheb in person for the first time. As we tried to relax, with huge pictures of Thackeray and his family members staring down at us, a door opened on one side of the room and an aide beckoned us.
Believing this to be another level of check-up, we got up and entered. I almost missed a beat - the Tiger himself, Thackeray, with a gentle smile on his face stood bang opposite, ready to receive me. He was sporting his trademark dark brown glasses, a full length comfortable kurta-pyjama attire and a new wonder - a large cigar in the mouth.
He offered a warm and firm handshake that served to chase away all my anxieties, Parab touched his feet. We were both relaxed, looking forward to the rare experience. As per his instructions, I was carrying a small tape-recorder which I switched on. He had kept another large tape-recorder of his own on a side-table which he switched on!
"You know, sometime back there was this foreign magazine interview controversy. So, now I insist on taping all my interviews and keep my own copy," he grinned.
I started with a message of gratitude for saving my life once — he looked at me, puzzled and I recounted the incident briefly.
It was during the December 1992-1993 Mumbai communal riots that my house in the north-west suburbs was targeted for an attack one cold dark night. I made a frantic landline call (mobiles did not exist in those days) to my boss, DK Raikar in The Indian Express office, (now Group Editor, Lokmat Group of Newspapers).
Raikar immediately assured to help out and he in turn called up Matoshri and spoke to Thackeray and his aides. Thackeray asked Raikar my name and caste and Raikar said he is a Dawoodi Bohra apparently, Thackeray shot back, saying Dawoodi Bohras are 'exempted' from the riots!
Nevertheless, he immediately ordered his local 'shakhas' to organise security by his own rampaging Shiv Sainiks, to the entire housing complex where I lived, for nearly three weeks. Thanks to Thackeray, a total of half a dozen Muslim families emerged unscathed from the bloody riots.
After hearing this, Thackeray shook hands, smiled and muttered: "People have all kinds of misconceptions about me, but the reality is quite different."
He was absolutely relaxed and answered a wide range of political, general and even a few personal questions during the two-hour long interview.
In between, on three occasions, a buzzer went on his telephone — "Sorry, please excuse me" he said to me each time. I was taken aback and Parab's jaw dropped - imagine, the Shiv Sena Tiger apologising!
I dared to ask why he gave up his trademark pipe for a cigar, he said: "Times change, habits change" and smiled, but the cigar was never lit. He spoke in a mix of Marathi, Hindi and English, some potentially controversial statements he said slowly for the tapes to catch correctly.
After the interview, we generally chatted till another buzzer — Thackeray muttered a yes and the door opened again. There, standing before us was Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane, his wife, Uddhav Thackeray, his wife Rashmi and little Aditya.
Rane straight lunged for Thackeray's feet, somebody produced a golden tray and he (Thackeray) applied a 'tilak' on the chief minister's forehead as I stood beside watching the scene in awe. Parab clicked away furiously. "It is my chief minister's birthday today, he has come for my blessings," Thackeray turned and informed me.
I also shook hands and wished Rane, and also shook hands with a much-younger looking Uddhav. Then, Thackeray applied a 'tilak' to all those present in the room and gently requested Parab to click a few group pictures.
Shortly after, we shook hands and left Matoshri armed with a two-hour interview and memories of a lifetime on the great encounter with the Sena Tiger.