The writer explores the rather peaceful Jharkand town made famous by Anurag Kashyap’s ultra-violent two-part movie, and discovers that the line between truth and fiction is a thin one.

What do you expect to encounter when you visit a locality in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, that has crept into the hearts of millions of Indians ever since it was projected, in theatres, as the hub of barbarous violence? Not peace, certainly. And this peace seems to have rendered the place unremarkable, invisible.

Wasseypur, with a population of over two lakhs, is located in almost the heart of Dhanbad — one of the fastest developing towns of Jharkhand — but it still manages to evade your eyes. For one, there are very few auto-rickshaws — the primary mode of local transport — running through Wasseypur. The entire locality, therefore, remains hidden and untouched by most locals.

The mere mention of its name used to turn heads around. Its folklore had weight. There was a time you could get away with anything, any damn thing, with just a one-line introduction that you were from Wasseypur. But times have changed.

Unsure about how to go about exploring the area, which none of the locals of Dhanbad knew in great detail, I took the help of Aftab, who has spent 16 of his 24 years here. He hails from one of Wasseypur’s most renowned business families, and handles his family business of transport, sanitaryware, and hotels, among other things. Dressed simply, he greets me with a broad smile that betrays his betel-stained teeth and asks me what I do for a living. He doesn’t understand me when I tell him I travel for living. He asks innocently, “Is that even a job?” I smile and park myself on the rear seat of his brand new Royal Enfield, a sign that his business is flourishing.

Wasseypur is not the kind of city that ever attracted tourists. The locality is so ordinary that it fails to impress in any way. And yet, this ordinariness has a distinct appeal: the colourful houses, the not-so-majestic mosques, the nallahs running parallel to you most of the time, the fragrance of biriyani from the mini-restaurants, school kids scampering by, and cows lazing on the roads. From the outside, this is like any other locality in Dhanbad. But there is something that sets it apart: its history.

As one starts exploring the inner streets, the boulevards and the marooned dilapidated houses that stand witness to gunfights that began with a locally made katta and progressed to the AK 47. But all this is history, as Aftab says.

A unique way with legends

The famous, rather infamous, locality starts beneath the Gaya-pul (a bridge that connects the commercial Bank More area and the rest of the city), where you find some auto-rickshaws and a handful of policemen. Aftab bhai tells me that every time one of those autos visited Wassepur, the drivers had to hand over five rupees to the hired hands of Fahim-boss, aka Fahim Khan, the famous outlaw who inspired the character Faisal in Anurag Kashyap’s movie.

Wasseypur has its unique way of addressing its legends. The word boss suffixed to your name means that you are a renowned hoodlum. In the next hour of my exploration, Aftab tells me about many such bosses and shows me their houses, where some famous murders have taken place. You still find policemen at distant nooks and corners; they are stationed to prevent brawls. Aftab tells me that once upon a time, there were police officers all around, but now the situation has changed.

I ask Aftab how much of the two movies on Wasseypur was true. He says 80 per cent. After all, the writer of the movies hails from here. Shafi Khan, Fahim’s father, bears close resemblance to Manoj Bajpayee’s character Sardar Khan. Much like Sardar Khan, there was a Bengali mistress in Shafi’s life, and she was referred to as Bengalan by the locals.

And Faisal Khan’s character is a near-perfect replica of Fahim’s. He grew up smoking pot, owned an iron-scrap business, married the woman he loved despite societal disapproval and yielded to his mother’s provocations, which resulted in several murder cases against him. Shafi Khan, much like Sardar Khan in the movie, was shot dead at the petrol station, becoming the first prominent victim of the gang war in the suburbs of Dhanbad.

But there is one big difference between reel and real life. Most of the gang wars were between the gangs of Wasseypur, not with the Singhs, who, as Aftab related, had been instrumental in instigating these wars, but never participated in them.

Another scene in the movie, where a girl was kidnapped by Singh’s men, has been portrayed conversely. It was actually a local Hindu girl kidnapped by the goons of Wasseypur and the members of the Singh family ultimately had to threaten the entire Wasseypur community to return the girl in 24 hours. That this was instantly accomplished came as no surprise, considering the might of the Singhs and the fear with which they were regarded.

Fahim Khan is currently in jail and has been sentenced to life imprisonment. But this hasn’t affected his hold on the locality by much. No land or property dealing is done without a proper commission to Fahim’s men. People, to save themselves from harassment by his minions, often make Fahim a co-owner of the land that they buy. Aftab, with marked irreverence, says that all other renowned goons failed to use their brains in business and that’s why they had to resort to violence and unscrupulous land scams to feed themselves.

A different Wasseypur today

Having completed one round of Wasseypur, which was mostly met with furrowed eyebrows from the locals because my three-quarters made me look like a foreign entity, Aftab takes me home to meet his father.

His father, around 60, has been a witness to the entire journey of Wasseypur, right from the time it was a fledgling Muslim locality with houses that could be counted on one’s fingers to its current avatar, with numerous buildings and some development. The dull, withered, unpainted gate in front doesn’t go with the sprawling house inside. As we sit in the drawing room, his entire family unfolds in front of me, interest looming large on their faces. Being tied up day and night in their diverse businesses, it is rare for them to have a guest at home.

Aftab’s father relates how poor the locality was two decades ago, when education was at its nadir and hooliganism was at its peak, in a bid to ensure do-waqt-ki-roti to the hundreds who were unemployed. His diction doesn’t carry a hint of the delicacy of his mother tongue Urdu. It is, instead, sprinkled with Bihari colloquialisms and even the occasional cusses that are not restrained in front of his family or a guest like me, for that matter. But his voice has an unrealistic conviction that sets him apart.

He says that he has not allowed society to cast its vile shadow on his children and never compromised on their education. He says that the current Wasseypur is different. It has gotten free from the hands of the mafia and the goons, and ever since Fahim was jailed, locals have united and stopped paying mahinas to his sycophants. He laughs when he says that 70 per cent of Wasseypur is completely independent of those goons and doesn’t pay heed to them, while the remaining 30 per cent are Fahim’s family members, who fight among themselves. He takes pride in the safety of the mohalla, saying that even at two in the night, a woman can walk down the road without a second thought. Petty crimes have stopped completely. Gangs have been dissolved. And those who remain are up to scams at a bigger level, which promise bigger returns.

I take his leave with immense respect, for despite allowing Wasseypur to contaminate his tongue, he hasn’t allowed it to contaminate his mind. Aftab courteously drives me through Wasseypur once again; through the muddy tracts, through residential lanes, the rugged roads, all of which, he says, are intricately interconnecte. This has made it very difficult for the police to catch hold of any criminal in the past.

On this second round trip through the area, however, Aftab chooses to show me today’s Wasseypur. He points to the black grill of a small house and says that it belongs to an IAS officer who qualified UPSC two years ago. He shows me a blue balcony that belongs to someone who has cracked JEE this year. Last but not least, he points out the four red steps leading to a modest yellow gate that belongs to the most recent star of the locality: the Bollywood actor-scriptwriter Zeishan Quadri. You may have heard of his last effort. It was called Gangs of Wasseypur.