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It’s a don’s life

Hussain Zaidi

Hussain Zaidi

After reconstructing the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, sketching the rise of underworld Don Dawood Ibrahim and narrating the fascinating lives of Mafia Queens, he brings us the tale of, perhaps, the most colourful personality in the Mumbai underworld scene.

In My Name is Abu Salem , the sixth and latest of his books on the underworld and organised crime, journalist-turned-author S. Hussain Zaidi not only records in unflinching detail the criminal journey of the flamboyant Abu Salem but also narrates his tempestuous relationship with actor Monica Bedi. Today, arguably among the most authentic chroniclers of the Mumbai underworld — and the last journalist to talk to Dawood — Zaidi’s first tryst with journalism, however, was purely by chance. After an unsuccessful stint with business, he joined a business magazine, Exhibition World , and enticed by the urge to do something big eventually shifted to mainstream journalism. And there has been no looking back. His books have been adapted into films. Hussain’s in-depth stories brought in a new element the often unreported side — to crime reporting in Mumbai and, in particular, in the post 1993 blasts era. Zaidi, who swears by the sanctity of the ‘document,’ feels crime reporters in Mumbai relied too much on police feeds and were too lazy to cross check facts. “I was shocked to find there was no reference material on crime in Mumbai,” he tells me outside the Sessions Court in Mumbai. The Court has issued his Publisher, Penguin, and him notices after Salem, currently under trial, filed an application seeking the withdrawal of the book. Excerpts from a chat:

Salem says your book declares him guilty in the murder of builder Pradeep Jain. In chapter eight, You write about how, after Jain’s murder, Salem called her up and gloated about it.

I have not declared him guilty. I have been as precautionary as any crime reporter would be. I have not added detail and only relied on Jain’s wife Jyoti’s 13-page deposition before the court. I don’t understand how my book will prejudice his case. There are a lot of eyewitnesses and clippings already existing in the case. Besides, there is nothing new in a book being written based on charge-sheets and police cases and the verdict coming later.

There is definitely no love lost between you two.

Salem has been used to people doing huzoor, huzoor (bowing) before him. He is miffed that someone could defy him. With the help of two inmates, he was writing his own autobiography, presenting himself as the philanthropist, the Good Samaritan. My picture of him was just the contrast. He says I have tarnished his ‘noble reputation’ (chuckles) and caused him distress.

He was coercing you to write his story into a film script rather than a book.

He thought he had a great enough story for that. But when he realised I was not doing it, he must have wondered ‘how can someone make money out of my story.’ This peeved him. He is a man desperate for publicity. In the 100-page autobiography he managed to compile, he had even introduced songs at intervals! He was actually writing a movie script! (chuckles).

Which of your six books is closest to you? What obstacles did each one face?

It’s difficult to pick one; I’m deeply attached to each one. Even at the cost of affecting my personal life, I have never neglected my work. In terms of obstacles, if I had to pick I would say Abu Salem and Headley and I . There were no adequate documents available on Headley other than the 36-page NIA statement. I spent more money (and time) on getting the documents than the advance I received for the book. Similarly, for Abu Salem, there was a lot being said but little on paper.

The underworld is a tricky domain. Did you ever feel threatened?

Twice. I was working at Midday when an anonymous person called my landline — we couldn’t  trace the call — and asked me to stop doing what I was. To intimidate me, he mentioned some details about my school-going son. I was reckless then and felt that the best retort was to show how little I cared.  So instead of cowering under the threat, I politely filled in his ears the remaining details of my son’s school! Naturally, he was stunned and hung up. The second time, I was followed. I was into body building and usually carried my training kit in a bag. To evade him, I slipped into a saloon and changed into the kit and put on a head gear. The person following me had seen me enter the shop with blue trousers and green shirt. When I came out, he failed to recognise me as I gave him the slip!

How different was Salem from the rest of the dons? You say he’s vain but also refer to him as the embodiment of all that is vicious about the mafia.

I haven’t met a more narcissist don. He is obsessed with his looks and thinks himself to be as handsome as an actor. He has undergone plastic surgery, had lip corrections, nose jobs, what not. He can barely smile now. He is always under the mirror, even while threatening people on the phone. He is also into pedicure and manicure.

And the vicious bit?

He figured that to be a don he had to make a bang. To be heard in Bollywood, he had Gulshan Kumar killed and, to intimidate the builder lobby, he targeted Pradeep Jain. Both murders took place in a ruthless manner. He wanted to send across a message that he meant business. Most other dons spoke respectfully but Salem abused and intimidated people. He was vulgar. In private, however, he behaves with tehzeeb, and prays five times.

Salem’s ex-wife Sameera describes his only desire in life was ‘fame fame and fame.’

Yes. He used to take credit for killings done by others and collect paper clippings of the news. For that he even earned the title ‘paper tiger’. It was only after the murder of Gulshan Kumar that people started talking about him. He was just a delivery man till then, a tapori. After the Jain and Gulshan Kumar murders, he grabbed fear. He wanted people to know him and fear him.  He tried to exert himself and was desperate to be seen with the big people. Dawood did not require doing all this.

How does Salem compare to Dawood?

There is no comparison. Dawood had a hold in the industry; the way he treated people in the industry earned him respect. Nobody in the industry got killed. The industry was in awe of Dawood. In contrast, the day Salem was extradited, crackers were burst and, celebrations held. Dawood didn’t abuse or threaten people in general. He didn’t need to. You won’t find a single woman who can come and say Dawood ill-treated her. Salem, in contrast, was a wife-beater. None of the women, in his life, including Monica Bedi, will ever say he was a good man.

Does the underworld still enjoy a vice-like grip on Bollywood?

Not to that extent. The modus operandi has changed. Some sporadic incidents may happen but the mafia network doesn’t exist now. Earlier they would extort money on the phone by threats or ask film producers to provide them land abroad.

Now you will find Chhota Rajan asking people to go to his Ganpati idol function for publicity or some don asking a builder to allot him some flats in a new complex. Like in Salem’s case, in Bollywood, they might ask the director to provide them a copy of their latest film so that they can sell pirated copies and make money.

The process of extradition can be comical in India as in the case of Nadeem and Iqbal Mirchi when the Indian government didn’t even have the proper documents in UK! Any suggestions.

We need to get serious first. And a crack team focused on the case must be formed. Things need to be organised.

Your book details Salem’s relation with Monica Bedi.

She got entangled with Salem. She was kept at an arm’s length after her links to him were known. If an actress is clean, in Bollywood at worst she will face the casting couch. But if a woman is associated with a gangster, she has no chance. Look at Mamta Kulkarni’s case. The industry starts treating her like an outcast if her links with the mafia are open.

What next afterSalem?

I have signed a new three-book deal with Penguin:  Mafia queens in India: A Sequel to Mafia Queens in MumbaiSix Decades of Terror in India ; and the third is still undecided.


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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 2:02:47 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/It%E2%80%99s-a-don%E2%80%99s-life/article59835449.ece