In his book, Dongri to Dubai, S Hussain Zaidi describes a scene in which Haji Mastan, the famous mafia don of the seventies, is trying to broker peace between two warring gangs, one led by the Pathans and the other by Dawood Ibrahim. “Dawood snatches the cigarette Mastan is smoking and crushes it in his palms and says, ‘we know how to handle the fire and when to crush it with our bare fingers’,” Mr Zaidi writes. Thus, for the purposes of this book, Dawood Ibrahim is the protagonist, the quintessential Bollywood villain, a suave mafia don, a global terrorist — all rolled into one.
The title suggests that Mr Zaidi’s book attempts to chronicle six decades of the Mumbai mafia. There are many characters in the book, starting from the lesser-known criminals like Ibrahim Dada, Johnny Chikna, Nanhe Khan and Wahab Pehalwan to the better-known ones like Haji Mastan, Vardarajan, Karim Lala, Abu Salem, Chhota Rajan and Chhota Shakeel. But Mr Ibrahim is the epicentre of the narrative.
It is evident in the welter of details that Mr Zaidi has done a tremendous amount of research. But the detailing smacks of Bollywood clichés with over-the-top dialogue — for example, “Our business is the business of fear”. There’s loads of revenge drama too — for instance, when Mr Ibrahim plots revenge after his brother is killed, or details of how gang members’ murders are avenged, or how Mr Ibrahim’s father, a policeman, was heartbroken when he saw his son becoming a notorious criminal.
Mr Zaidi has worked as a crime reporter for various publications including The Indian Express and The Asian Age. If we overlook the dramatisation, his writing style is narrative, matter-of-fact and flows easily. The problem is: he leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For instance, why did Dongri become the nerve centre for mafia dons in Mumbai? Or, for that matter, what happened to Haji Mastan once Mr Ibrahim became, as Mr Zaidi calls him, “the numero uno through his skill and a certain amount of luck”? While he builds the characters of Haji Mastan, Vardarajan and Karim Lala intriguingly, their stories – especially how their reigns ended – conclude rather abruptly. Perhaps it’s because the shadow of Mr Ibrahim looms large over the book, in almost every chapter. To be fair to Mr Zaidi, the fascination with the mafia don is understandable, given the numerous films made on him.
What Mr Zaidi does quite well is analyse Mr Ibrahim’s rise to become what he is today. He points out, for example, that Mr Ibrahim was a shrewd operator who understood early on that Pakistan would be overrun by fundamentalists. He describes how D-company ran an almost parallel economy. He also explains how Mr Ibrahim hated the fact that he was viewed as the mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. He apparently wanted to surrender in the aftermath of the blasts just to clear his name because he was fed up with people blaming him for something for which he wasn’t entirely responsible. Even here, Mr Zaidi can’t help but bring the drama as he describes how a woman police officer phoned Mr Ibrahim in Karachi and called him a traitor.
Although the book claims to be a definitive account of the Mumbai mafia, it does not break out of the confines of being an account of Mr Ibrahim’s underworld career and the various feuds he had with other gangs. A good amount of space is dedicated to his relationship with close aide-turned-foe Chhota Rajan. Mr Zaidi’s depiction of Chhota Rajan, among all the mafia dons, is the best — his management of the affairs of D-Company from Dubai, Malaysia and Bangkok is described in close detail.
Also, the Bollywood connection to the underworld is covered extensively — from Mr Ibrahim’s relationship with the 80s starlet Mandakini to Gulshan Kumar’s murder and how Chhota Shakeel wanted to produce Bollywood films. But there’s very little that isn’t common knowledge already. Mr Zaidi also touches on how the Mumbai police has dealt and fought with the Mumbai underworld. He tries to show the success and failure of the Mumbai police in equal measure.
This isn’t Mr Zaidi’s first writing tryst with the Mumbai underworld and its crime scene. Having written Black Friday — The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts and Mafia Queens of Mumbai, he, clearly, knows and understands the business of writing books about the underworld. The next skill he should cultivate is how to turn raw facts into rounded analyses.
DONGRI TO DUBAI: SIX DECADES OF THE MUMBAI MAFIA
S Hussain Zaidi
378 pages; Rs 350