Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dongri to Dubai: A review

Crime reporter Hussain Zaidi attempts to chronicle the Mumbai underworld, which is a monumental task, considering how widespread it is, and with a history that is not documented at all. Each generation has its own stories and gangsters, with only a tenuous connection between them. A layman would not be able to connect between Haji Mastan, Vardarajan and Haji Mastan, and fewer still will be able to recall who came before these three. The era of the D-company, though well documented, has its own urban legends, and it is difficult to separate truth from the fiction. By attempting to provide a history of the Mumbai crime world right from when it was a small fishing village is a daunting task, but Mr. Zaidi, who has been covering the crime beat in Mumbai for a long time is just the right person.
Mr. Zaidi is famous for his books on Mumbai blasts, as well as the women crime lords of Mumbai. Plus, he has the sole distinction of interviewing Dawood Ibrahim after the Mumbai blasts. These facts point to his resourcefulness in gathering facts, which would be a key aspect for a job of this kind.
The book, in a nutshell, is uneven. Mr Zaidi uses his journalistic skills to tell the story of crime in Mumbai well, starting from the beginning of the last century. He explains the importance of the Dongri in the book's title as not being just the place where Dawood Ibrahim operated, but rather where it all started. Dongri is the epicenter of the crime world in Mumbai. We also come to know about the earliest gangs of Mumbai, the Muslim gangs and the Christian gangs, as he chronicles their skirmishes. Without this book, the exploits of Bada Johnny, Chota Johnny and Chikna Johnny would have been lots, as would the stories of the Lucknowi Gang, the Rampuri gang and the Jaunpuri Gang. These parts are the interesting parts of the book.
Mr. Zaidi then moves to the era of the Big Three (Haji Mastan, Vardarajan and Karim Lala) and tell of the rise of three, and in turn, of the beginnings of organized crime. The narrative gradually goes to tell the rise of Dawood Ibrahim.
Mr Zaidi has done a lot of research into the subject, and it shows. But a little more research would have helped, a little restraint, since the book reads like a report on crime on one side, while it manages to throw pieces of information about the characters we did not know. Like the meeting between Haji Mastan and Vardrajan in a jail at night, or the striking up of a partnership between Haji Mastan and Karim Lala over an iftar meal. The narrative reads totally filmi, right down to the dialogues supposed to have taken place between the protagonists. Granted that Bollywood has always played a big role in Mumbai underworld, but the canniness is disturbing. To think that a dialogue from Sholay gave the impetus to the rise of Dawood Ibrahim. Or that a pir forretold of his greatness/infamy. Its too hard to believe, but difficult to disbelieve as well. As it stands, these are the best bits of the book.
The portion dealing with the Dawood era chronicles his rise to the top of the underworld well to the detriment of others. Even if Dawood was the biggest fish in the pond, there were others who help him, and still others who challenged him. The do get a mention, but not much is told about them, which is a shame since they were his foot soldiers, and a more public face of his.
The book does not dwell too much on the Chota Rajan - Chota Shakeel rivalry, explaining it as just a professional rivalry. In fact, reading the book, one gets the impression that the Dawood Ibrahim - Chota Rajan rivalry was started by Chota Shakeel, and Dawood had nothing to do with it. The book also misses out on the sensational murder of Sharad Shetty by Chota Rajan, It seems, the works of others pales when compared to the Big D.
Like I said earlier, the book is uneven. It skims over certain events, while suddenly delving into others in depth. Also, the exploits of some gangsters scores over the other. Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim are given move space than Vardarajan, Karim Lala, Abu Salem and Chota Rajan. That Dawood should concentrate on Dawood since he is the biggest ganglord of our times is understandable, but to ignore his associates in the process in the process does not do justice to the ambitious book.
Dongri to Dubai is an important book in Indian publishing, but the importance is lessened by the lopsided storytelling. But for an initiation into the violent, compelling history of the Mumbai mafia, here can't be a better book.