A Nobel laureate and Mumbai’s Underworld!

Celebrated writer VS Naipaul, who passed away on Saturday, traversed the length and breadth of India in the 1980s to research his book India: A Million Mutinies Now

Facilitating a meeting for a celebrated writer like VS Naipaul with members of the Bombay mafia is not exactly a journalistic assignment. Some may consider it a welcome spin-off that comes with covering crime. Others would think of it as an evening wasted with a VIP friend or acquaintance of the editor. With so much interest in Bombay’s dark underbelly in the 1980s, it was not unusual for writers and foreign journalists to drop anchor in the city and look for low-life correspondents to take them on a tour of the red-light district, introduce them to massage parlour owners, pushers, drug addicts and the underworld.

In the late 1980s, I was with the Indian Post, a lively daily which quickly evaporated from public memory (Google reveals little about the paper and mistakes it for the Indian Postal Service). On one business-as-usual morning, my editor Vinod Mehta asked me to call VS Naipaul (he had not been knighted yet or awarded the Nobel Prize) who was put up at the Taj. As a young reporter, I was naturally overwhelmed. A chance to meet a writer of Mr Naipaul’s stature was a big occasion. I had heard much about him and even read A House for Mr Biswas, a dog-eared copy of which I had picked up from one of the many second-hand book stalls that lined the pavements near Flora Fountain.

I promptly called him and was told that he was researching for a book on India and I had to help by organizing a meeting between him and members of the underworld. Rather excited, I worked the phone and by lunch had fixed a rendezvous in the evening at a safe house in an upscale residential area near Shivaji Park in Dadar. I was supposed to meet Mr Naipaul in the lobby of the Taj. ‘Please don’t come up to my room. Call me from the reception and I will come down,’ he instructed me when I called him to confirm the appointment.

We drove to Dadar in a non-AC taxi, which was rather uncomfortable given Bombay’s high humidity levels. But Mr Naipaul seemed not too concerned about the weather. I suspect he found the slow-moving traffic more of a bother. He didn’t complain about it, but it must have been frustrating to sit in a cab for 40 minutes to crawl a distance of 15 km. En route, Mr Naipaul told me a little about his book and how it involved travelling the length and breadth of India. But he obviously did not wish to reveal too many details and steered the conversation to Bombay’s underworld. ‘You have been strongly recommended…how long have you been covering crime?’ I told him I had done some stories which raised a few eyebrows but couldn’t claim to be a specialist or an expert.

...seeing that Mr. Naipaul was not familiar with the various Companies and names of gangsters, he switched to things his gang actually did – eviction, kidnapping, extortion, contract killing and all the other things that are stock-in-trade for gangsters

The conversation drifted to what I would learn years later was Mr Naipaul’s considered – some would say uncharitable – view of the Muslim community. He had concluded, or had been told, that the mafia in the city was made up of Muslims and Muslims alone. ‘As a community they somehow seem to be historically more drawn towards crime than all the others,’ he observed. I reckoned I was just an ordinary journalist to contradict such a great man, but I summoned the courage to tell him that one couldn’t draw such sweeping conclusions and that crime knew no religion or region. ‘Why, there are people from all communities even in Dawood Ibrahim’s gang. His main man is Chota Rajan, a Hindu,’ I said and went on to reel off the names of Hindus in the mafia including Amar Naik, Arun Gawli, Varadarajan Mudaliar…

Given that he equated the underworld with Muslims, it was rather ironic that the safe house I took him to was occupied by hitmen, gangsters and their friends who were all Hindus. I had not planned it that way, but the meeting at short notice (Mr Naipaul wanted it over and done with in a day) was somehow ordained to be so. We reached our destination after meeting a contact at a paan shop near the Portuguese church in Dadar, who took us to the address in Shivaji Park – close to where cricketer Sandeep Patil lived. Anyone stepping into the safe house – a well-appointed ground floor flat – would think they had come to a typical upper middle-class home with a TV set and sofas in the drawing room. But once you wandered into the rooms, it resembled a Bollywood gangland set, with pistols and arms of various descriptions littered around.

Mr. Naipaul was given the pride of place next to the leader of the pack – a dark, stockily built man who did not look like he was part of the mob. In fact, one could mistake him for a stockbroker or a car spare-parts dealer who had just got off the suburban train at Churchgate. The man started talking about his life and all the gang wars he was currently embroiled in. However, seeing that Mr. Naipaul was not familiar with the various Companies and names of gangsters, he switched to things his gang actually did – eviction, kidnapping, extortion, contract killing and all the other things that are stock-in-trade for gangsters.

Because of some misunderstanding, Mr Naipaul kept thinking I had brought him to meet a Muslim gang. He had to hastily change his line of questioning once he realised he was actually dealing with Hindu gangsters. For a start, he enquired if there were any Muslims in the gang. He was told that there were indeed a few of them but as a gang leader, he didn’t trust members of that community in his team. In retrospect, I suspect the mafia man was perhaps playing to the gallery and saying things Mr Naipul wanted to hear. So, in the course of the next half hour or so, the man elaborated on how Muslim criminals were low class, unlike their Hindu counterparts who were decent middle-class folk with the benefit of a good education. The noted writer kept taking notes even as I was asked which British paper he was representing. When I said it was for a book he was writing, the gang leader suddenly had that vacant, uninterested look. But to keep Mr Naipaul engaged, he spoke about how he believed in Santoshi Ma (an incarnation of goddess Durga), to whom he claimed the gang prayed before every operation.

Interestingly, I had been to the safe house a few weeks before. ‘Gangsters are not about religion – we have to do our dhanda and we do it for the money,’ I was told then. They had also boasted about the contracts they had executed and the politicians and police officers on their payroll. However, the leader was obviously being circumspect now talking to Mr Naipaul and did not disclose his political or other gangland links. Among those who were hanging around the room was a well-built young man with a bandaged hand. ‘I got injured in an operation – a gang fight – which is why I’m biding my time here,’ he explained. Mr Naipaul was surprised to hear him speak in English and found it perplexing that he was a dropout from an engineering college in Karnataka.

Surely things were not going by Mr Naipaul’s pre-supposed script. The half-a-dozen young men present in the room were not from any Muslim ghetto off Mohammad Ali Road. Many of them not only spoke English but also claimed that they had made frequent visits to England and were familiar with Regent Street, Hampstead, Hammersmith and Hyde Park, and even knew some of the night spots in Soho! (All these details, incidentally, did not figure in the book.) To be fair, Mr Naipaul heard them all out with utmost patience. He was a good listener and even studied the press clippings shown to him closely. ‘Look, we are even covered by the English papers,’ one of the gang members told him with a measure of pride. I was asked if I was going to write something about this particular visit in my paper. If I did, I was not to forget to send the gang 10 or 15 copies of the paper.

After well over an hour, we took our leave. On the drive back to the Taj, Mr Naipaul asked me whether the people he met were simply bragging. I said I knew that they were even deadlier than they presented themselves to be.

After bidding him goodbye, I rounded off the evening at the Gokul bar, a refuge of journalists and ad men in one of the lanes behind the Taj. It was an inexpensive place and if you didn’t mind the heat, noise, and the Formica table tops, you could have a drink that wouldn’t pinch your wallet. ‘I was with VS Naipaul,’ I told one of my copywriter friends. He initially didn’t believe me. Later, perhaps to cut me to size, he offered this one liner: ‘Remember, like all of us, Naipaul also rearranges alphabets from A to Z in different patterns.’ I knew he certainly did just that, but far better than any of us.

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There were a few spin-offs after Mr Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (Penguin) came out in 1990. Among them was an offer by David Davidar (then editor of Penguin India) to co-author with a common friend a book on the history of Bombay’s underworld. We warmed up to the task and found that researching about organized crime was relatively easy till one came to the Dawood–Chota Rajan–Amar Naik period. To give the book authenticity and freshness, we had to go beyond the press clippings and police records and sit down with the gang members for extended periods of time, rather than talk fleetingly with them over the phone. This is where we ran into a problem. We were advised that unless we had a letter from a very senior police officer stating we were writing a book, we could be arrested for spending time in the company of gangsters.

I thought I could easily manage such an official note and approached a senior police officer. He heard me out but was not particularly helpful. ‘Mr Pillai,’ he said, ‘we can give you no such letter which provides you any immunity. Of course, you are free to write your book. But if you get into trouble that’s your problem – consider it an occupational hazard. This is your private project. You have not been commissioned by the police to write it.’ He then went on to say that when a reporter is on the war front, no army gives him the guarantee of safety. ‘Think of it like that,’ he said as he showed me the door.

I recall mulling over what he said. It suddenly didn’t look as simple as we had originally thought it would be. Those were the days before the 1993 riots and bomb blasts, when sections of the police were allegedly on the side of the underworld and were not very helpful. We decided it was not worth it – if the risk was spending time in jail under some draconian law, we’d rather not write the book. The project was called off and I got back to reporting on Maharashtra state politics.

(Excerpted from ‘Off the Record’: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary’ by Ajith Pillai. Published by Hachette India, 2014)

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