Gangster Wrap

In 'Dongri to Dubai', crime reporter S. Hussain Zaidi pours his years on the beat into a magnum opus.

May 23, 2012 11:48 am

S. Hussain Zaidi, an unassuming, somewhat doughy man who looks as though his mother might have dressed him, is likely Mumbai’s foremost surviving crime reporter.

No, let’s start over.

S. Hussain Zaidi, a soft-spoken man in khakis and a plaid shirt, is chummy with Bollywood types. His two previous books both made the leap to the screen: Black Friday was turned into a film by Anurag Kashyap, and Mafia Queens of Mumbai was optioned by Vishal Bhardwaj fresh on the heels of Kaminey. Proclaims director Sanjay Gupta all over the cover of Zaidi’s newest release, “If it wasn’t for this book there would be no Shootout at Wadala”. Evidently Gupta has never heard that two wrongs don’t make a right.

But then none of the larger-than-life characters profiled in Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia seem to have heard it either. This comprehensive history of the Mumbai mafia is fueled almost exclusively by revenge.

An impressive work, Dongri to Dubai marks the culmination of the many years of crime reporting Zaidi has put in at the Asian Age, Mid-Day and Indian Express, among other dailies.

It’s not hard to see why scriptwriters are drawn to Zaidi. He has the dirt—all of it. His research is astoundingly thorough. The stories he has assembled are the stuff of blockbusters. Stars and starlets love the roles. Directors eat this guy up for a different reason, perhaps: he simultaneously supplies all the information and leaves everything up to the imagination. But I’ll return to that later.

Movie-mafia connections are not, of course, confined to fiction. From Haji Mastan’s attempts to finance “social” films to the 1997 hit on Gulshan Kumar to a snide exchange about Hrithik Roshan captured on Chhota Shakeel’s wiretap, Dongri to Dubai records the underworld’s many flirtations with Bollywood. But these are diversions.

The chronicle’s main preoccupation is with the rise of a single infamous individual, the very mention of whose name is a bad omen in some circles.

Born on December 26, 1955, Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar was the second son of a respected CID policeman. His rapid rise to local, then national and international influence takes enough twists and turns to keep one glued to one’s seat. It all began in Bohri Mohalla, which the book glibly defines into “Dongri” as follows: “Null Bazaar, Umerkhadi, Chor Bazaar, Kamathipura, and all the interweaving cloth and retail markets and masjids”.

Zaidi’s storytelling assumes—no, demands—an intimate knowledge of Bombay geography. His ear is, in more ways than one, close to the ground. Time and again we’re exposed to shocking, sensational scenes: a murderer who liked to do the deed on the ‘S’ Bridge in Byculla! A broad-daylight heist on the flyover at Carnac Bunder! Dawood, putting down his chai at Gulshan-e-Iran café, stepping across the road to thrash a Manish Market shopkeeper!

For once I’m grateful these places haven’t been improved in decades, because they’re easy enough to picture—if, that is, you’ve been there. Zaidi has a way of making Mumbaikars feel like insiders.

A wider audience, however, may wish they’d waited for the movie. Amid all the detailed accounting of supari hits and smuggling schemes, not once does Zaidi stop to paint a picture for us. Not a single adjective does he expend on describing the docks along which future don Varadarajan Mudaliar began his career—though, in a nod toward literary form, Zaidi opens his chapters with weather reports (“sweltering”). We never get a whiff of the swamplands of Sion Koliwada that Varda later used as his hooch-smuggling route. Nor do we learn what’s on the walls of Haji Mastan’s Warden Road bungalow, or of Dawood’s White Houses in Dubai or Karachi.

Zaidi is too much of a straight shooter to reach for an unsubstantiated qualifier. Like journalist-turned-TV series writer David Simon, even (especially!) among his filmi friends, Zaidi sees himself as a flatfooted reporter pounding his beat hard. The few colourful details he slips in are, oddly enough, literally juicy: the badam sharbat enjoyed by Muslim bodybuilders; the soda bottles thrown by Dawood to attack and usurp the goon Baashu Dada; the predilection of one Pathan to lick ice cream off his girlfriend’s face at Girgaum Chowpatty.

Editors might have pushed Zaidi further in the direction of literary description, while curtailing his penchant for flowery idioms and occasional cut-and-paste repetition. (Another talented author, another disappointing effort by Roli Books.) Zaidi’s just-the-facts-ma’am attitude leaves us shy in another crucial respect. Many years before starting work on this volume, Zaidi says in his preface, he sought to explain “why so many Muslim youngsters from Mumbai were drawn to crime”. Naturally, the glamour, the promise of easy money, and the lack of other available opportunities were part of the story. These enticements are presumably no less attractive to poor non-Muslim youth. Zaidi was searching for a communal explanation, and was particularly well-equipped to find one, but he is temperamentally allergic to generalisation.

As the book catches up to the present day, Dongri to Dubai breaks a little news. Recounting the days following the American raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, Zaidi gives the most detailed snapshot to date of Dawood’s standing within the ISI (Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence). Fearing a snatch-and-grab operation on another protected “guest”, the ISI stashed Dawood for a time in Saudi Arabia—no Tora Bora cave for this VVIP—out of the reach of both Americans and Indian extradition treaties. Since Dawood’s embrace of terrorism, the game of tracking down dons has relied increasingly on international intelligence. Zaidi hammers repeatedly at Pakistan for its machinations, and at the U.S. for failing to call it to account.

Dongri to Dubai lags at times, straining under the weight of its meticulous detail. More often than not, however, it is as compelling a page-turner as it is a singular reference on organised crime. While it may be short on the pungent visuals of a Sacred Games (or even a Shootout at Wadala), with history it’s loaded—and ready to shoot.

Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia by S. Hussain Zaidi, Roli Books, Rs350. Buy it from Flipkart.com.