Done-it-all gangster women

J. SRINIVASAN | Updated on May 19, 2011

Mafia Queens of Mumbai : Stories of woman from the ganglands. By S. Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges. Published by: Tranquebar Price: Rs 250

As the book The Godfather races towards the climax, you desperately want Mike Corleone to win, never mind the negative hero's ruthless killings, including that of his brother-in-law. Crime fascinates, especially tales of gangland bosses that over time become folklore. Mumbai has many such stories to tell but Mafia Queens of Mumbai turns away from the usual Haji Mastans and Dawood Ibrahims to gangster girls.

Though patched together from official documents, case reports and anecdotes from the characters' family and acquaintances, S. Hussain Zaidi's narration is racy, bringing out in turn the drama, the intrigue and the pathos. Set mainly in alleyways and slums of the notorious Mumbai neighbourhoods of Nagpada, Dongri, Byculla, and Antop Hill, the 13 tales transport you to a world that prima facie appears far removed from ours but has actually many points of intersection just beneath the surface.

The deft narration by Zaidi, who also penned Black Friday on the Mumbai riots, brings out the human side of these tough women, who schemed and dared to come to the top in the decidedly male-dominated underworld and made for themselves a place of power and influence.

Else, it would not be easy to imagine a young Dawood Ibrahim running to a woman smuggler-bootlegger Jenabai Daaruwali for protection from not a rival gang but from his policeman father after a gang war. Or, that she should broker an accord among warring gangs as a favour to the legendary Haji Mastan.

As powerful is Gangubai Kothewali, the Madam of Kamathipura. Sold into prostitution by her boyfriend and hardened by Mumbai's red-light district, she still has a soft-corner for young women forced into the trade. No wonder she has been deified and her idols and photoframes adorn many a mantelpiece or wall in Kamathipura.

Obviously, not for any of them was crime a life of choice. Rather, as P.G. Wodehouse would term it, it was the concatenation of circumstances. For instance, burqa-clad Ashraf does not even know that her husband was part of the underworld till Dawood Ibrahim had him killed. But after that she sets out to avenge her husband, becoming enough of a problem for Dawood to have her brutally murdered.

Or, Bollywood starlet Monica Bedi, Abu Salem's moll, who had no clue with whom she was falling in, and then forced to be on the run with the gangster. And, when law did catch up with them, she turned to religion and ended up on a reality show.

Then, there is Neeta Naik, who made her London-educated husband Ashwin turn to the underworld or face its wrath. And when he was shot and fled the country, she ably ran his operations till she fell to her husband's jealousy, but not before she managed to get elected as a Mumbai corporator.

As resourceful is Arun Gawli's wife, Asha, who took over the reins of his underworld empire and ran it efficiently. Simultaneously, she did enough for the neighbourhood to get her husband elected to the Maharashtra Assembly even when he was in jail.

Women, we know, are multi-taskers. Yet, it is really fascinating to read how these women slip into different roles so effortlessly and efficiently. Pappamani may have taken to dealing in drugs to keep her children fed and clothed, but she quickly brought in method and management ideas to the trade that benefited all and won her the sobriquet Mahalaxmi. Indeed, the lawyer hired to defend her finds, much to his chagrin, Mahalaxmi's sidekicks, sans any formal education, were thorough with the nuances of drug crime-related laws and court procedures.

Mario Puzo did not etch a female counterpart to Mike in The Godfather, but had he done so, she would perhaps have been more interesting. As film-maker Vishal Bharadwaj observes in his Foreword to Mafia Queens of Mumbai, “Lady Macbeth is more complex and fascinating a character than Macbeth or King Duncan”. But what makes this book a compelling read is that it tells the stories of very real women of our generation.

Published on May 19, 2011

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