He is no more. But had Jyotirmoy Dey (56) -- better known as 'J Dey' -- survived Saturday's gangland-style attack on him, I would have asked him without batting eyelids: Sir, how could the motorcycle-borne attackers track and ambush you?
For, Dey, editor (special investigation) with English tabloid 'Mid-Day', was nothing if not street-smart and alert. He was known to keep everybody guessing about which specific route he might take for reaching from point A to B.
While he was secretive about his network of 'sources' and the work, his personal life to mere acquaintances was an absolute no-go zone. Few knew where he stayed, few knew if he had a family in Mumbai. Few knew he slugged it out at a decrepit Parel boxing ring or jogged at a particular ground, with a fellow crime reporter for long. Dey, wary of possible reprisal: from sections of the Mumbai underworld whose activities he monitored discreetly or from the surveillance network of not so-friendly official contacts.
Starting as a junior crime reporter, I worked with him for around seven years at the Indian Express and Hindustan Times between 2001 to 2007, he was an inspiration, an occasional mentor for me. I first met him in 1999 though, his six-feet plus frame lumbering towards the Mumbai Crime branch's headquarters at Crawford market in south Mumbai, when a fellow crime reporter pointed out at him. 'That's J Dey'. He was a media celebrity known for his fearless, honest work ethics and mining of the underworld activities.
For hours, after work, he and I would sit and sip endless cup of tea (I would also smoke, he was a teetotaler), while he gave me a rare peep into the workings of the underworld, its maze of leadership hierarchies, and details on the counter-underworld fighters in the crime branch units or the secretive crime intelligence unit.
Dey would readily part with numbers of the contacts. I once asked for information on a mafia don, Dey gave me a 60-page dossier on him.
As a crime reporter, nothing perhaps fascinated Dey more than the direct confrontation between the mafia and the police. If such a special operation would be brewing up, Dey would be among the first to get a wind of it. He would alert the bosses, sit quietly by his preferred landline at his workstation. The details would pour in soon enough.
The circumstances of his tragic killing ironically seemed a slice from his body of work. The way four unidentified underworld suspects sneaked in from his behind and riddled his body were the kind of incidents he especially reported on through his around two-decade career.
Dey took his top sources seriously, whether they belonged to the police, or occasionally from the world of crime. He spent his off-work time with them, listened to their stories and remembered them. I once met him at a busy suburban railway platform at 11pm. He was there to meet a contact who liked to keep it discreet.
Dey was an enigma to most of his colleagues, but kept a sharp eye on them. He had time for the young reporters and would quietly let them know if he liked any of their stories.
He patted me for a series I had done against a then sitting legislator who allegedly abetted the suicide of a teenager and on an 80-year-old doctor in Bandra whose body was found on the floor inside his bedroom, his pet Labrador's body lying inches away from his, three weeks after his death. But he also admonished me once for doing a series against the killing of stray dogs by the Mumbai civic body.
For an hour, he gave details of a pack stray dogs who would chase him -- they even bit him once -- in the lane outside his home every night he returned home.
Dey was polite to the fault and firmly kept a low profile. His persona was quiet intimidating, yet nobody heard him using a violent language. Younger reporters called him 'Sir', he would address them as 'Sir' or 'M' am'. He fondly called friendly police constables/head constables 'commander'.
Dey sat in a corner away from other colleagues. It would bother him a little if somebody lingered around him when he was having a telephonic conversation or writing.
Dey had an eye for details and wrote well. We spoke of exchanging books on crime fiction.
He was loyal to his battered Hero Honda 800 bike and would not trade it for a swankier version or a car. I rode pillion with him many a times while on way to a 'spot': he would unfailingly re-adjust the position of my right foot on the silencer's rubber pad.
Dey maintained diaries: they would contain details on important crime incidents of the day, contact numbers and even cuttings of stories (his or any body else's) that merited his attention as a storyteller of the world of crime. I remember asking him for a detail, which he fished out from within the dog-eared pages of the diaries.
He had a funny bone. He once told a trainee from United Kingdom to sprinkle his conversations in Hindi with the phrase 'kharcha paani dun kya?' The reporter used it with a senior colleague, who got furious instantly. Later, Dey broke into a smile, when the reporter narrated his experience. In underworld lingo, the Mumbaiyya phrase meant 'Should I bash you?' But realising it was all done in harmless fun, the trainee chuckled with him. Dey was a purveyor of the city's shadowy worlds and liked to melt in. His email id was 'commanderdey@...'.