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Review: Mafia Queens of Mumbai

It’s strange to think of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim as a frightened young man, hiding from his enraged policeman father after beating up a young thug in a gang fight. Zara Murao writes.

books Updated: Apr 16, 2011 10:34 IST

It’s strange to think of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim as a frightened young man, hiding from his enraged policeman father after beating up a young thug in a gang fight.

It’s even stranger to read that the person he ran to for protection was a woman, freedom fighter-turned-smuggler-turned-bootlegger Jenabai Daaruwali. And oddest of all to think that Dawood, Haji Mastan and the Pathan gangsters might never have joined forces had it not been for Jenabai’s intervention.

The story — one of 13 accounts of Mumbai’s ‘mafia queens’ — reads like a sub-plot from a film script. A troubled Haji Mastan watches from the balcony of his bungalow, ironically named Baitul Suroor (House of Happiness), as his black Mercedes heads towards a slum in the dead of night to pick up a rich and powerful bootlegger. She arrives to a sumptuous dinner, then advises the gangster, Haji Mastan, on how to turn his fortunes around.

Elsewhere in Mafia Queens of Mumbai — the second book from veteran journalist S Hussain Zaidi — Ashraf Khan, a soft-spoken gangster-turned-informer  speaks of the burkha-clad beauty he fell in love with while teaching her to shoot, fight and snitch and who dedicates her life to destroying Dawood to avenge her husband’s murder.

It’s hard to tell how much of Mafia Queens is apocryphal, given that each of the 13 stories is pieced together from official documents, case reports and anecdotes from the subject’s family and acquaintances. The account, though, vibrates with drama, intrigue and unexpected pathos.

There’s Gangubai Kathewali, the matriarch of Kamathipura, a young woman betrayed into prostitution who turns into one of its biggest champions — and wealthiest benefactors — but retains a soft spot for young women forced into the trade.

And there’s Neeta Naik, who persuaded her beloved husband to join the underworld only to see him shot and paralysed, then forced to flee the country till eventually, mad with jealousy, he hired gunmen to shoot his allegedly unfaithful wife.

Making surprising appearances in secondary roles are some of the biggest names in Mumbai’s once-all-powerful underworld — Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan, Ravi Poojary.

The only name that perhaps doesn’t belong is Abu Salem’s moll, Monica Bedi. Amid women who did the doing and paid the price, the story of a young starlet cluelessly trailing a gangster around the world, then switching loyalties and religions and ending up on a reality show somehow doesn’t seem to make the cut.