IT is five in the afternoon in Ratnagiri, a bustling little town about 400 kilometres south of Mumbai, and I am standing outside the little room where Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was born 154 years ago. The room is the size of a bathroom but the house, which was rented by his father, Gangadhar Tilak, is not. It is a typical Marathi house of those days, with a broad verandah at the front, and a staircase that leads to the first floor from outside the house. Here Tilak lived as a boy for ten years, until his father, a senior official in the education department, was transferred to Pune in 1866.
The house is easy to find. We had come by road from Goa, about 200 kilometres away, and made inquiries about the house in the bazaar. Nobody could tell us until I located the office of a newspaper where the young man in charge gave us precise directions.
“Go to Tilak Ali”, he said. “You can’t miss it.”
Ali means alley in Marathi and Tilak Ali means Alley of Tilaks. When we arrived near the house, we asked a small boy where the Tilak house was. Since there were quite a few Tilak houses in the area, he was perplexed for a while. Then he suddenly realised we were asking about the only Tilak who mattered, and pointed to the house across the road.
As old houses go, it is not a big house, but it has a big compound, and has been nicely maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Survey maintains an office and two supervisors almost round the clock. The young man we met was polite and knowledgeable. He seemed to know everything about the great man, and was, for a government servant, unusually respectful about a man who had died nearly a century ago.
Surprisingly, among the few visitors was a young Muslim couple, the young man in the usual dress of a Maharashtrian, and the woman in burqa. I asked the man what had brought him to Tilak’s house. I had seen him earlier with folded hands outside Tilak’s birth-room, so I asked him about it. He said it meant nothing, he was merely greeting a great national figure, a man who was part of our history. Then he and his wife, or maybe his sister, sprinted across the courtyard to catch a riksha to go home.
I have always been intrigued by Tilak and the way he, almost single-handedly, helped create anti-British environment at a time when most Indians, including Gokhale and Ranade, were either in the employ of the British (like Ranade) or were co-operating with them (like Gokhale). Tilak alone stood up to the British might, a lone warrior against an empire that spanned the world and on which the sun never set.
Now that I have visited his birthplace, I have, so to speak, connected the dots between his birth in 1856 and his death in 1920 in Mumbai. As everyone knows, Tilak died in a chawl-like house called Sirdar Griha, appropriately bang opposite the police headquarters in Dhobi Talao, not far from the railway terminus, now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus, and Bhendi Bazar, one of the worst slums in the city. Sirdar Griha, where I too stayed for a few days on my return from England in 1952-I paid only 14 rupees a day for a whole room-maintains a kind of a shrine of the Lokmanya, but it is a hundred-year-old building, and falling apart.
I have always considered Chhatrapati Shivaji and Lokmanya Tilak as two of the greatest warriors produced by the Hindu race in the last four hundred years, warriors not in the conventional sense of military leaders-which, of course, Shivaji was-but in a much wider context. Both fought against the existing powers that were strangling Hindu civilization. Shivaji against the Moghuls and Tilak against the British. They were mighty empires at the time but were so shaken up by these two stalwarts that not much remained of their might after these two had done with them. Even the great British had to leave India within twenty-five years of Tilak’s death, something their worst enemies would not have suspected at the time.
It is amazing how Tilak, the son of a petty official in British service, suddenly began taking on the British might at that time at the height of its power, not only in India but in almost every corner of the world. But after Tilak had shaken them up, the British sun had lost its shine for ever. Where did he get the power to do so?
I have always felt that the inspiration and, of course, the inner energy to do so came from Shivaji himself, whom Tilak acknowledged as his political guru, though not in so many words, and also from Hindu spiritual treatises which he read as an accomplished Sanskrit scholar. Tilak himself wrote three books on the antiquity and greatness of Hindu culture: The Orion – Researches into the Antiquities of the Vedas; The Arctic Home of the Aryans; and Gita Rahasya.
Tilak was not just a political leader and agitator; he was a great scholar who pointed out the underpinnings of Hindu philosophy behind every Hindu activity, including the struggles against alien powers. He used all Hindu festivals, particularly the Ganpati festival, to mobilise Hindu solidarity and opposition to foreign rule, which at that time, meant British rule.
Surprisingly, neither Shivaji nor Tilak were Hindus in the conventional political sense. Both were secular in their outlook. Shivaji had Muslim officers in the armed forces and Muslim advisers. Tilak’s principal legal adviser for a long time was Barrister Mohammed Ali Jinnah, before, of course, the latter’s mutation into a fanatic Muslim. Tilak worked with them all, but never faltered in his loyalty to the Hindu cause. Likewise, Shivaji proclaimed himself as a Hindu king, with protection of Brahmins and cows as one of his aims, but all citizens received protection in his Hindu kingdom, irrespective of their religion.
This has always been a Hindu tradition, and it was begun by Shivaji in modern times and reinforced by Tilak in his political activities. Tilak was very clear about who he was and what he stood for, which is why his message reached far and wide in those days with few newspapers and virtually no telephones, and, of course, no internet. It was Tilak who saw that his message reached right down to the common man, and did not remain stick in the august assemblies presided over by the white men in topis. His message reached the common man, not just in Maharashtra, which was his stamping ground, but all over India, which was precisely why the British were terrified of him and banished him from Indian shores for six long years where, they hoped, he would die, and they would succeed in getting rid of him for all time to come.
I have come back to Tilak’s house for a final glance, as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean whose waves glide silently a couple of miles away. Did Tilak ever see the great ocean from his house and did he ever go the beach and spend time there? I doubt it. He rarely did any thing for personal pleasure, maybe even as a small boy, and even in Pune, then, as always, a city of music and drama, he was loath to spend time in useless amusement. He himself provided the greatest drama this country has seen-the great drama of ceaseless struggle against an empire on which the sun never set but which was finally swallowed by the very Indian Ocean that roared, like a lion, only a couple of miles from the house where he was born.