To the shiny, new India, the Bombay mafia with its swaggering bhais, molls, suparis (hits) and daylight shootouts is gone, a creature slain as the new century rolled in.
To J Dey, the underworld gangs had only retreated from plain sight, to the dark edges of India’s richest city, diminished greatly through the 1990s by extrajudicial killings of their rank and file by a select bunch of police officers, but still capable of swift, deadly retribution.
So, they emerged from the shadowlands of Mumbai on a warm Saturday, to gun down one of the few men left carrying — and relentlessly revealing — their secrets, old and new.
About 6’1” and strongly built, Dey carried himself with the slight stoop of a boxer, which he was in a secret fight club in the grimy badlands of central Mumbai. On the rare occasion he was amused, Dey’s thin smile still looked like a glower. Clean shaven, shirt always tucked in, Dey could pass for a plainclothes policeman or underworld operative, a shooter, as he called mafia hitmen.
Prickly, secretive and street smart, Dey did not trust too many people with the mafia secrets he uncovered, as I learned when I was his editor, first at the Indian Express and later at the Hindustan Times.
His stories were always fascinating, often hard to believe, difficult to source but invariably true. Dey did not attend office parties, mingle too much with his colleagues. His beat was his life.
He intimately knew encounter specialists—police officers who tracked gangs and were given or had given themselves an unofficial licence to kill mafia hitmen—and he knew many footsoldiers of the mafia. When I once asked him how he knew the story of an "encounter" was true, he simply said, "I was there."
After hanging around policemen for about two decades, Dey adopted some of their mannerisms, refusing to call his bosses anything but, “Sir”. From him I learned of not just Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan but all manner of lesser and wannabe dons. He chronicled their careers, crimes, loves, language (peti was a lakh, khokha a crore, samaan, a weapon) and lives.
As the new age of journalism with its 24/7 news and relentlessly ambitious journalists exploded in India’s face the last decade, Dey still worked his sources, mined his formidable memory of the mafia and scoured police files—among the last of the old crime reporters.
When he was shot dead by four “shooters” on Saturday, he was, as he always has been, on his motorcycle. His ambitions were always focused on telling his stories, never on the rewards they could fetch.
My relationship with him did not pan out well: There were too many stories I could not clear, and after a promising start, it all went downhill. Dey stayed relevant, writing two books on the mafia and, at the Mumbai tabloid MiD DAY, continuing to do what he did best—revealing a creature we thought had lost its teeth. As Dey’s death proves, the mafia can still bite.