A history of organised crime in Mumbai is rife with sociological implications. The evolving weaponry (fists, knife, gun, bomb), levels of violence (threat, maiming, murder, multiple murders, mass extermination), the types of crime (gold smuggling, drugs, real estate extortion, kidnapping, video piracy), the processes of gang formation (community, remuneration)—all these provide a fascinating view of a society in the throes of evolution.
S. Hussain Zaidi’s Dongri To Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia attempts such a survey, describing the underworld from a time of relative innocence when bully gangs with knives roamed the grimy streets of India’s commercial capital, to our current brand of globalised and corporatised terror. Woven into this journey that spans the post-independence era is a biography of the most notorious figure it has spawned—Dawood Ibrahim.
An enterprising journalist whose earlier book on the 1993 Mumbai bombings was made into the searing Black Friday by filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, Zaidi has an eye for the cinematic. In Dongri to Dubai, he tells of the symbolically sinister value of a walking stick owned by the Pathan strongman Karim Lala, for instance. And of the colourful hitman Manya Surve, who drew inspiration from the novels of James Hadley Chase and carried bombs “the way people carry chikoos in their plastic bags”. Also, the pithy one-liner from a gangland member: “Our business is the business of fear”.
There is a wealth of data here and some interesting revelations. One such concerns the 1992 shootout at the government-run JJ Hospital in central Mumbai. One of the most horrific episodes in the inter-gang warfare of the time, the event had been exceptionally chilling for the brazen disregard with which it had breached the invisible walls that had traditionally separated criminal from civilian territory. However, in Zaidi’s account, it transpires that it was intra-gang rather than inter-gang rivalry that had propelled the incident: one power centre was seeking to outdo another within a gang, and had deliberately picked a prominent location that would showcase its capabilities to flamboyant effect.
Dawood Ibrahim, whose story appears in relief, as befits his dominant stature, emerges as a paradox: a street goon who journeyed from a Mumbai ghetto to a place on the US list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists and Forbes magazine’s chart of the world’s fifty most powerful individuals, he is also a mere pawn in the game of brinkmanship between India and Pakistan—liable to be shuttled from country to country, unable to satisfy his yearning to return home.
Unfortunately, the book, ambitious in scope, unfolds as a breathless recitation of events, sans any attempt to find patterns or situate the underworld in a social and ethical context. There is a great deal of vagueness, notably, for instance, about the financial scale of Ibrahim’s operations, which adds to the tone of mythification.
Despite the handicaps of style and analysis, this book is a useful archive on the Mumbai mafia. As an anecdotal account, it is an enjoyable read.