Zaidi keeps his lens trained on Mumbai's gangsters but not on the power structures that have kept them in business
The Mumbai dockside neighbourhood of Dongri has always been noted for its hardscrabble quality — and for the ability of its residents to make the most of their arduous circumstances. By the 17th century, their talent for quick-witted improvisation had resulted in the creation of a coarse garment that would be adopted by stevedores and longshoremen all around the world. Made from the sacking cloth found abundantly in Dongri's warehouses, these rough overalls were known as dungarees.
There were no dungaree-wearers in evidence on national TV early on the morning of November 26, 2011, as news crews converged on the edge of Dongri to cover the conflagration that had engulfed the squat Sara-Sahara Mall. But the very existence of the shopping complex, occupied by purveyors of perfumes and mobile phones, garments and cigarette lighters, proved that Dongri's ancient instinct for survival was still burning bright.
The mall makes an appearance in the closing sections of the zippy Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia, as the authorities discover that the 20,000-sq-mt plot on which the shops stand had been usurped from the Public Works Department by associates of Dawood Ibrahim, the shadowy figure at the heart of S. Hussain Zaidi's tale. In 2003, the authorities began to demolish bits of the complex. “… The only remnants of the Sara-Sahara Complex today are in the memories of the shopkeepers”, Zaidi writes. That, it turns out, was the official position on the mall. The situation on the ground was much more fluid. Though the authorities claimed that they had destroyed the structures, it didn't take long for its occupants to creep back in. Soon, it was business as usual — right under the eyes of the Mumbai Police, whose headquarters is located approximately 100 metres from the complex.
The mall could be seen as the ultimate destination of the gangland journey that Zaidi sets out to chronicle. His intriguing seven-decade-long saga shows how the ingenuity and muscle power of men from Dongri and its environs that once were focussed on petty dockland thefts came to be channelled into gold-smuggling schemes, drug-running rackets (and the occasional terrorist plot). Mumbai's gangs have always had their eye on the richest slice of the piece and the Sara-Sahara complex — a lucrative piece of real estate in the city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world — laid bare the intricate links gangsters have forged with bureaucrats and politicians to get in on the biggest game in town.
Piecing together the story of crime in 21st century Mumbai will require a battery of global forensic accountants to slice through the evidence. Zaidi's book, however, looks back at a past in which the city's crime blotters were dominated by men whose tactics involved brawn, bullets and the ability to command the loyalty of a wide network of unlikely collaborators. A veteran newspaper crime reporter and author of the gripping Black Friday, an excellent narrative about the conspiracy that resulted in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Zaidi has leveraged his long-standing relationships with police officials as well as gang members and their families to weave together a compelling portrait of the dons and drug-runners, hitmen and hooch-brewers who controlled the city's underworld from the mid-1940s.
Many of these men — Haji Mastan, Varadarajan Mudaliar, Karim Lala — have since faded into the far recesses of popular memory. Others, thanks to Bollywood's obsession with the dark side of the city in which it is located, have come to assume mythic proportions, barely distinguishable from their screen personas. That is especially true of Dawood Ibrahim, the policeman's son from Dongri who presided over (and profited from) the transition of the city's economy from one based on manufacturing, with numerous import restrictions, to a system based on globalised, speculative activity that allowed him to spread his empire to Dubai and beyond. This makes Zaidi's book a useful primer for anyone seeking to get a more realistic sense of Mumbai's genealogies of crime.
Dongri to Dubai has a cinematic quality to it, using dramatic dialogue to sketch scenes of mayhem and melodrama, cunning and candour. Readers learn about the colour of the upholstery in a room in which a gangland conclave is held, chance upon dons in the middle of sexual orgies being interrupted by phone calls from their bosses, are told about the bagginess of the clothes a hitman pulls on as he heads for a job. It's a book easily adaptable for the movies (so it's no wonder that a section of it has already been used as the basis of the film Shootout at Wadala).
Accretion of detail
In the end, though, it's this accretion of detail that causes the text to fray a little. In his acknowledgements section, Zaidi says that the scenes and dialogue have been re-created with the help of scores of anonymous sources, aided by “some creative licence”. The problem with this method is that human memory is alarmingly fallible, so writers attempting historical narrative need to recheck what they've been told. It isn't clear how rigorously Zaidi has been able to do this. As a result, some obvious mis-rememberings have made it to the page.
In the chapter on the Mumbai riots of 1992-'93, for instance, we're told that when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, “the entire world saw the footage of this live on television”. In reality, the first visuals of the event emerged only a month later, on a videotape series produced by the India Today group called Newstrack. (As improbable as it may seem today, live satellite uplinks were still many court battles away from reality in the early 1990s.)
In other places, the street on which a shooting occurred has been misidentified and the date of the introduction of Prohibition in Bombay State is wrong. These tiny inaccuracies, coupled with the mischaracterisation of some political events, go a little way in smudging some of the finer brushstrokes that give the book so much of its appeal.
As in the movies, though, it's all a question of perspective. In his story, Zaidi keeps his lens closely trained on the men who run Mumbai's underworld. But had he pulled back occasionally to focus on the Byzantine power structures and cozy relationships that have kept men like Dawood in business for so long, Zaidi would perhaps have provided a more contoured vision of the city. As the Sara-Sahara Mall demonstrates, the Mumbai mafia stays afloat only because of the approval of corrupt politicians and administrators — the other stakeholders in the so-called D Company. By obsessing about the city's gangsters, we're missing Dawood for the trees.
DONGRI TO DUBAI — Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia: S Hussain Zaidi; Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., M-75, Greater Kailash II Market, New Delhi-110048. Rs. 350.