Queens without crowns

Title: Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Stories of woman from the ganglands. Author: S. Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges, foreword by Vishal Bharadwaj.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai_grrks

It couldn't get feistier than this you think on reading the title and immediately conjure up images of gorgeous molls lolling on the arms of cigar-puffing villains sporting mismatched shoes. But Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands is nothing like what you'd expect. A cool clinical tribute to the women who made significant inroads into the infamous arena of Mumbai's criminal underbelly, the extensively researched work of journalists S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges, besides enlightening one on the ways of lady gangsters, informs, enthrals and very frequently chills the reader down to his bone-marrow.

No stereotypes

There are no stereotypes in the world of crime, it is established at the every onset, and not every woman criminal is pushed into crime by unfortunate circumstances (as generally depicted in movies and literature). Some women are born to crime, some others chase it relentlessly and yet some others have crime thrust on them. And then there are those others who choose to channel their genius towards darker goals for the sheer adrenalin rush it entails. Thus we have the imperturbable Lallan Bhabhi, a cog in the petrol adulteration cartel, Sapna Didi, a rare woman who had the guts to stand up to Dawood Ibrahim, liquor queen Jenabai Daaruwali and the iconic brothel madam, Gangubai Kathiawadi. A rare touch given by the authors is the perennial riches-to-rags possibility hovering over each head and which seems to deter not a single of these women. As Zaidi and Borges lead one down the dark dinghy alleys of Dongri, Bhendi Bazaar, Nagpada, Dharavi and Mumbra, it becomes difficult to forget characters like the dainty bereaved Ashraf who turns into a gun-toting avenger, the charismatic Gangubai who lights up the streets of Kamathipura with a rare dignity or the bootlegging aunties. There is no attempt to romanticise the real-life stories or add unnecessary embroidery for added texture. Consequently, there is an element of starkness, a bleakness of approach that is very brave, yet strangely unsettling for the reader. One wishes the authors had added further dimensions by a deeper exploration of the complexities within each character. Some of the motives and choices made by the protagonists remain fuzzy and perplexing to the very end.

The authors confess that in writing this book, they have attempted to understand the devious minds and the psyche of women criminals and have relied heavily on court documents, police records, cop historians, reliable journalists and published news stories in major national dailies. This probably explains the absence of a judgmental tone and the strong undercurrent of sympathy for the protagonists evident all through the text. Filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, known for his insightful projection of gray women, writes a crisp racy promo-like foreword that alludes to the deep and symbiotic relationship between celluloid and the written word. Though most of the women featured here are well documented figures, a large chunk of the book revolves around the media darling and long-time companion to gangster Abu Salem, Monica Bedi. Bedi's incredible journey from an angel-faced small-town girl hailing from Chabbewal, Punjab, to an internationally notorious criminal would put any movie story to pale; it simply has to be read to be believed.

Of hidden lives

A quiet chilling book that lays bare the murky underbelly of the city that never sleeps. The chronic suffocation of lives led in cramped spaces of the city is palpably real as is the depiction of crime as a popular neighbourhood pastime. Of particular interest is the episode where Zaidi, then a budding crime reporter and author Vikram Chandra (researching for his book on Mumbai) tread the turf of notorious gangster Hussain Ustara and attempt to unravel the sacred games played by the gangster cum police informer. There are no over-the-top shoot-outs or motor-car chases, no blood, gore or blonde villains ordering henchmen to dunk victims into liquid oxygen in legendary Bollywood style. No larger-than-life figures a la Phoolan Devi, Godmother or Mona darling. The heroines in this book are regular women on the surface, the kind one runs into at every corner in every city. It is their inner hidden lives that astonish.

Mafia Queens, by virtue of its very stark simplicity is a revelation, a rare treat for the discerning lover of crime stories. Intricately researched, told with restrain and reserve, the book explores a bold and original theme (a non-fiction work based entirely on women criminals of Mumbai probably never having been done before). And in doing so, completely remaps the city's gender geographies.

Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands, S. Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges, Westland Books, 2011, Rs. 250.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 9:20:20 PM |

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