'Amitabh Bachchan saved my life when I was kidnapped in Iraq'
Journalist-author S Hussain Zaidi never runs out of anecdotes, each one of them more thrilling than the one he's just regaled you with. From being taken a hostage by militiamen in Iraq at the height of the unrest in that country to convincing a gangster that his life is not worthy of making a film, Zaidi's lived a charmed life, in every sense of the word.
A prolific author, he's authored a number of best-sellers, including Black Friday, Dongri to Dubai and Byculla To Bangkok. His latest book, Mumbai Avengers, a fictional account of Indian Army commandos on a secret mission inside Pakistani territory, is being hailed as the next big thing in crime writing.
We caught up with Zaidi for his take on a range of topics close to his heart, including the Mumbai underworld and his stint as a crime reporter.
Are you in love with the underworld?
No, I am not. When I started my career, there were hardly any journalists who covered the crime beat as comprehensively as I did. My boss at Indian Express told me that I was hired only to cover the underworld. Soon, I realised that if I have to survive then I will have to do this work in the best possible manner. I started travelling, developing news sources, meeting informants and people related to the underworld.
How is your rapport with the police then?
I don’t like cops. The Mumbai Police is labelled the second best after the Scotland Yard, but I have a problem with the tag: They are very inefficient. I have covered that beat for 20 years and I know how they've gone about investigating a few cases. I don’t like them because they've framed innocent people and have cooked up cases. But then, I don’t have any sympathy for the mafia either. I deeply feel for the common man who gets caught in the crossfire between the police and the mafia.
You know when Chota Rajan declared war on the Mumbai blasts accused, reckless shooting happened in Mumbai. In 1998, there were 100 shootouts on Mumbai roads, and innocent bystanders were caught in the crossfire.
Reporters in Mumbai are very lazy unlike Delhi reporters who work hard. Mumbai reporters are more like stenographers: They go to press briefings and make stories out of them, no extra legwork.
The cover of Zaidi's new book Mumbai Avengers.
How tough were your initial days?
My parents hail from Lucknow, but I am born and brought up in Mumbai. I have never changed my work style. Even at 11:30 in the night when I was told that my story is getting an eight-column display -- an indication that a reporter can rest for the rest of the week -- I was glued to my phone, working for my next page one story. Those were the days when my wife, who is also a journalist, kept waiting for me at VT, leaving trains after trains, but I was just interested in keeping my job. It was the fascination of scoring page one stories that kept me on my toes.
Everything just kept happening with you including books?
I wasn’t planning to write books, but once I met David Davidar through Vikram Chandra’s recommendation, and the idea of writing a book on Mumbai serial blasts took shape. Then it was suggested to me that why don’t I write the biographies of the dons! You see, when you do extensive reporting, a lot of stories walk all over you and you develop an archive about the people you write on a daily basis. By the time I finished Black Friday, I had a lot of information on dons such as Dawood Ibrahim, Chota Shakeel and Chota Rajan.
You trained J Dey and he went on to become one the finest crime journalists.
It was an absolute accident. I met Jyoti (Jyotirmoy Dey) when we needed it the most. Let me tell you something about the Mumbai topography--it’s divided in four parts – Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Thane Rural. One reporter was covering this entire area. I was overworked and tired. Jyoti was covering environment then. One day he walked up to me and said, “I want to do crime reporting.” I was so happy that finally here is someone who wants to cover crime. I started training him and he reciprocated well. He said, “Hussain Bhai, you’re not a fit guy. Let me train you in weight-lifting and kick-boxing and you teach me crime reporting.” When your prodigy does well, you should feel satisfied. He shone in his orbit; he was a big star in his own sphere.
Didn’t you ever feel threatened? Did you not receive any phone calls?
I was brought-up in a very religious household where we believed that nothing can do any harm to you against the almighty’s wish. Once when I was working at Mid-Day and leaving the house, I got a call on the landline. Somebody told me that I should stop what I am doing otherwise they are aware that my six-year-old son is enrolled in Saraswati Vidyalaya. Now, how will you respond to it? Though I felt chills, still I responded, ‘you don’t have the full information, the child’s name is Ammar Zaidi and he is in class 2B of Saraswati Vidyalaya, Rabodi branch.’ The caller thought I have gone mad and he disconnected the call.
What exactly happened in Iraq then?
I went to Iraq when Saddam Hussain was toppled by the US forces. I wanted to talk to people close to Saddam and I was trying to get access to them when I got kidnapped in Baghdad. I was taken to a secret place and you won’t believe who saved my life: Amitabh Bachchan! When my blindfold was removed, I saw bearded men except one guy who was clean-shaven and had long hair. He asked me if I was Pakistani. I said that I am Hindi, from India. Then he said something in Arabic which I didn’t understand. Later he asked: Do you know Ameesha Bakkan? I said that the only Ameesha I know is Ameesha Patel. He scolded me real bad that I didn’t know Ameesha Bakkan. He got angry and went inside a room and came out with a still from Shakti (1982). Suddenly it fell upon me that this guy is copying Amitabh Bachchan from Shakti. That realisation made me scream with joy and that guy misunderstood that I am friends with Ameesha Bakkan (Amitabh Bachchan). He then made me write a note that if he will ever come to Mumbai I will make him meet Amitabh Bachchan. I agreed immediately and saved my life.
Is it true that Abu Salem wanted you to write a film on him?
When I met Abu Salem and said him that I am writing a book on him, he said, “Arre chiller kaam kyun karte ho? Film ki script likho. Agar tum film likhoge toh tumhare paas director log bag bhar ke paise laayenge.” I said him that I am only interested in writing a book as I am a journalist not a script writer. He kept convincing me and one day he said, “Main jo story bataunga na jab wo parde pe aayegi toh log uth ke toilet tak ke liye nahi jaayenge.”
(Interact with Rohit Vats at Twitter/ @nawabjha)