Almost five years after terrorists laid siege to Mumbai in November 2008, there seems little good news. The lone surviving gunman has been punished, but the mastermind remains free, the country still at risk from future attacks, and the terror outfit itself is now eclipsed by a more horrific global extremist organisation.
So what to do when there’s no good news? Hussain Zaidi turned to fiction. The crime reporter and author of several acclaimed books about Mumbai’s underworld changed the plot for Mumbai Avengers. He imagined a dream-team of counter-intelligence vigilantes tasked with killing the perpetrators of 26/11.
It’s pure fantasy – our heroes use futuristic tech, brute force, killer explosions and good old-fashioned ingenuity to deliver off-the-record justice. It’s the blueprint for Kabir Khan’s film Phantom – A Story You Wish Were True, out this month.
Fiction is a departure for Zaidi. Writer Vikram Chandra describes him as possessing "a certain integrity that he will not compromise" and who "won’t distort the facts to create a sensational story" in his non-fiction. Mumbai Avengers, nonetheless displays what Chandra calls Zaidi’s "laser-sharp perceptiveness, intelligence, and a steely discipline". It’s an alternative reality, one offering resolution that real life cannot.
Excerpts from a conversion with Zaidi:
Mumbai Avengers has a revenge plot many see as only fitting…
Isn’t it? The idea came from a PowerPoint presentation about how India could teach Pakistan a lesson. People kept asking, ‘Can India do this? Is it doable?’ Look how the US went after Osama after 9/11 with such vengeance. There was a similar need for justice.
But we’re so burdened with diplomatic compulsions, what the world will say, the Muslim vote bank... If 10 boys come into your country by boat and are guided over VoIP to kill, it’s as much a war as an attack in Kargil. But from 2008 to 2015 nothing was done. For a lot of people, with fiction, at least, there is a sense of closure.
What made you try crime reporting?
I had read Mario Puzo in my bachpan. But I didn’t choose the job. At my first newspaper interview, at Indian Express, the editor Saisuresh Sivaswamy looked at me and said, "You’re Muslim. All the criminals right now are Muslim. I can only offer you crime reporting." It felt racist, communal, of course. But I was newly married, I needed the money and took the job. Has being Muslim opened more doors or closed them, then?
It has closed more doors, for sure. I faced distrust from cops, most of them Maharashtrian, and it took long to convince them that even though I’m Muslim I was not a sympathiser. I was hired for my religion but I did not use that card. I developed my own sources: constables, orderlies, peons. And the stories kept coming. I’ve been stridently anti-Pakistan in my books. My wife is Hindu. I am not very religious – I follow Islam, but am not proud of how Muslims conduct themselves in this country.
Still, you’d have to be friends with them to get them to open up to you.
Of course, but you draw a Lakshman Rekha somewhere. You can’t wine and dine with them. The day you invite them to your wedding, and you attend theirs is when they can say "Write about me like this". Or they’ll play the communal card: "Aap toh mere Mussalman bhai ho". I’d verify information from as many sources as I could because I didn’t want people to plant information. It would cost me my job, my credibility. All those fears kept me on my toes. People responded to that integrity with trust.
And literary success.
I wrote the books to make money. Even I didn’t think they’d be so successful. The underworld has now spread across India. I don’t have to look for another job!
But you’re already part of Bollywood.
Let’s say it can be as unethical and hypocritical as the underworld!
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From HT Brunch, August 23
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