In the 1990s, Abu Salem spread terror in Mumbai through his extortion rackets. His particular targets were Bollywood and the construction industry. Nobody seemed too powerful or too well-connected for him to pursue. Directors Rakesh Roshan and Subhash Ghai escaped attacks and threats, music moghul Gulshan Kumar and builder Pradeep Jain were less fortunate. The killings and intimidation became so frequent and were carried out so publicly that ordinary people were fearful and the police were under unprecedented pressure to crack down.
In 2002, Salem was finally arrested in Portugal, where he was hiding. In 2005, he was extradited, arriving in India to a blaze of publicity. Salem, with his global connections, attractive partner (actress Monica Bedi), dapper makeover and involvement in the 1993 bomb blast was the face of the modern criminal lord.
The media was understandably rapt. We saw Salem, modishly dressed, biceps on display, in handcuffs. We saw him squealing under narcolepsy. We heard about his passion for Bedi who, languishing in a woman’s cell, slowly distanced herself from him. We read about his love of fashionable clothes and of good food. We heard about an attempt on his life in jail. And through it all Salem, externally at least, conveyed the impression that he was in sleepwalking mode, as if none of this touched him in any way at all.
In S. Husain Zaidi’s biography My Name is Abu Salem, we learn that Salem came from a poor but respectable Azamgarh family. Like many young men, he moved to Mumbai to make a living and came into contact with the underworld. Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Anis took him under his wing and Salem quickly demonstrated the ruthlessness and resourcefulness that would facilitate his swift rise in the ranks of the D company. He was the first, says Zaidi, to hire a suspended cop as a shooter. He was also the first to introduce the concept of freelance killers: instead of maintaining a full-fledged gang, Salem would hire a destitute boy from his hometown for as little as Rs 3-5,000, lend him a gun and put him on a train home after the hit.
Zaidi casts his net geographically wide—Dubai, Portugal, the United States—as befits the story of a global criminal. He provides insights into criminal life, and also the irony of Salem—once a scourge of the rich and famous—being forced to travel under false names and multiple identities.
Zaidi’s subject is vain, sensuous, cruel (he called a victim’s wife soon after the murder to gloat), contradictory—capable of both extreme callousness towards his former wife and extreme passion for Bedi. The book, despite its detail on his life and career, does not bring him to life though. Salem remains flat, untouched, as he does in our view of him.
However, we learn that Salem accumulated property worth Rs 5,000 crore in and around Mumbai. We also learn that the unprecedented terror spree that had Mumbai on its knees could be attributed to the megalomania of no more than one person—Salem. These facts should rob us of our sleep.