April 05, 2020
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Red Ink From The Octopus

Journalists working underworld links are in danger from all sides

Red Ink From The Octopus
Red Ink From The Octopus

In the early 1990s, Penguin India asked me and a friend with underworld contacts to write a book on the history of the mafia in Bombay. In my naivete, I thought it was a project that could be done easily. Having done a few stories on the mob and its colourful and violent ways, I thought all I would have to do was string together some facts. In any case, the first part—from the 1900s to 1960—was part of press and police record. But when it came to more recent times, I ran into turbulence. I was told that to write a book, I would have to do more than work the telephone (which is what one did for newspaper stories). In fact, I would actually have to spend time with informants and interview the bhais to add pep to the book. And that, I was told, could involve running the risk of being arrested by the police for having underworld links. As a safeguard, I was told to get a letter from a senior police officer that I was on an assignment for a leading publishing house.

So, armed with a letter from David Davidar—then editor of Penguin—I set up an appointment with a top cop. He was not exactly cooperative. “Mr Pillai,” he said, “the Bombay police has not commissioned you to write this book. So why should we give you any letter, protection or guarantee you immunity from the law? If you get caught, you get caught. Consider it an occupational hazard.” I left the police headquarters and mulled over what I was told over a glass of beer. The long and short of it was that the book never happened. In fact, I had forgotten all about the incident, the memory was only revived after I read about the arrest of journalist Jigna Vora in the J. Dey murder case.

Well, I don’t know the extent of her involvement or the validity of the police case against her. But I must confess that if my phone, or those of others covering the then glamorous crime beat, had been tapped, we would all have been in trouble. Reason: the bhai log talk loose on the phone, running down rivals, hurling abuse at the police, promising you favours (like using a bit of muscle to get you ownership of the flat you have rented). Should someone want to fix you, he could out a transcript and you might be seen as part of one gang or the other. You could be accused of working against the police. And in the 1980-90s, there were several reporters—both men and women—who, in the line of duty, interacted regularly with gangsters or their henchmen.

In fact, my first brush with Mumbai’s gangland was when I was a rookie reporter with The Sunday Observer. While doing a story on heroin addiction, I came across a recovering junkie from Indore who told me he had information about a huge drug consignment coming to Dongri, in central Mumbai. He wondered if I could tip off the cops and get him the reward given to informants. That money, he said, would help him start life on a clean slate back in Madhya Pradesh. In a fit of magnanimity, I agreed and fixed an appointment with an official. I passed on to him a map detailing the exact place where the heroin was to be stored and the date and time it would be landed. He seemed impressed by the details provided and assured me a raid would take place and my man would get his cut. But to my surprise, nothing happened. Instead, I had a suited-booted visitor who met me at the coffee shop of a five-star hotel and lectured me on my bravado. “You are young,” he said, “and have a long life. Why do you wish to ruin yourself? You should know we can get you arrested on a false charge.” He didn’t reveal at what level the information had been leaked.

I like my scotch, but I became queasy after the first few drinks. And when the Bhai spoke of a suitcase full of money for a leading lawyer, I knew I had to scram.

I was rather shocked at what happened and became cautious ever since. However, reporting out of Mumbai those days meant having to deal with the bhai log. And, being in the English media, you were much sought after, since in gangland terms a mention in the angrezi press was worth a thousand words in the Marathi or Urdu media. But coming back to the curious case of Jigna Vora, one can only say that as a journalist one has to be careful to keep a safe distance from the mob and seek no favours or help. For the benefactor bhai could well turn out to be demonic. And in this day and age of tapping, one has to be careful about what one says over the phone. The problem is, if you know too much, there will be several vested interests.

Indeed, one incident I remember was the result of a phone call. It was from someone who claimed he was Dawood Ibrahim’s financial advisor. And he used a college reference from Thiruvananthapuram to induce me to come to his hotel in Khar. When I reached there, the Black Label was in place. (The bhai, like all good Mallus, hit the bottle in the afternoon so that he would not have a late night.) The chicken tikka was in place, too. I silently sipped, while he did most of the talking. And even though I must admit to a liking for Scotch, I became a bit queasy after the first few drinks.

Edge writing Would Naipaul have been held too?

Reason: the bhai claimed he had come on Dawood’s private yacht. He’d disembarked somewhere off the Gujarat coast and had driven down to Mumbai. “I’m wanted by the police here for FERA and stuff,” he said, as he pulled at his cigarette. “Do you know anyone in the law ministry in Delhi?” he asked. I confessed I was pretty clueless in that department. “Why are you a journalist then?” he wondered. He obviously expected me to have some clout and said he was impressed by a reference to me in V.S. Naipaul’s Million Mutinies Now. I had accompanied the writer to a ‘safe’ house for sharpshooters in Dadar which found mention in the book. Now, in retrospect, I wonder if Sir Vidia was putting himself at risk by interviewing some mafiosi.

Anyway, the bhai moved on. In the next 15 minutes he went about parading his own influence. He called up Taqiuddin Wahid of East West airlines. “That’s our airline. Anytime you want to fly, it’s free for you,” he pronounced. Then he called up a few hotels. “You can drink free at all these places,” he declared. But the final nail was a suitcase full of currency notes meant for a leading lawyer. That did it. I bid my farewell.... One had to draw the line because it was getting too scary. My instict told me to scram and leave the bhai to his own devices.

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