Tracking down the lady who gave Meow Meow to Mumbai
The police told us that Baby Patankar ran a profitable drug operation from the hill, that she stayed clean by giving away information on rivals and that she had introduced Mephedrone aka Meow Meow – the drug with a ridiculous name -- to Mumbai. Baby and the constable, Dharmaraj Kalokhe, were alleged partners in the drug trade.
MUMBAI: Do you know what a reporter’s worst recurring nightmare is? It is when a rival ruins your morning with an exclusive story and your editor demands to know: “Why didn’t we have this?”
In Mumbai’s highly competitive daily newspaper scene, I faced the consequence of my big miss on March 10, 2015. The story was monumental – over 100 kilograms of the synthetic drug, Mephedrone, had been discovered in the home of a Mumbai police constable in Satara district, a three-hour drive from Mumbai, the previous evening.
The only way to make up for a miss is to sniff around harder than everyone else and ensure no one catches you cold on the story afterwards. I did that for four years, motivated in the beginning only by fear. I like my mornings stress-free.
That day, another 12 kilograms of the stuff was found in the constable’s cupboard at Marine Drive police station in south Mumbai.
The constable’s arrest was just the opening act. The character billed as the star of the show was a grandmother living on a hill in Worli. Her name was Shashikala Patankar, who as the youngest of five brothers, was naturally called Baby.
The police told us that she ran a profitable drug operation from the hill, that she stayed clean by giving away information on rivals and that she had introduced Mephedrone aka Meow Meow – the drug with a ridiculous name -- to Mumbai. Baby and the constable, Dharmaraj Kalokhe, were alleged partners in the drug trade. That they were also romantic partners was not disputed. An undated photo from a holiday, which the police released, confirmed that fact.
The portrait of Baby was of this self-made slumlord, a canny businesswoman and, as TV likened her, a Drug Queen. There appeared to be more shades to her than you could count on the fingers of both hands. So far, so scary.
But Baby couldn’t be found. Not at home, nor at her brothers’, relatives or friends. Nowhere in Mumbai. In the month that Baby had vanished, police told us she was the owner of dozens of properties in three different cities and the landlady of an equal number of jhopdas on the hill. And then, just as abruptly as she had vanished, the police announced her capture.
It was only when this story displayed signs of having an unusually long shelf life that I became motivated to dig deep. This was no Nordic slow burn. Just how many turns can a crime bereft of murder, kidnap or violence of any sort pack in?
During that summer, Baby and her story were fixtures of news television as details of her deeply entrenched relationship with the police emerged piece by piece. You could feel the tension at the police headquarters in Crawford Market as we acquired scraps of her claims during interrogation. That sense of unease was only heightened when police arrested five among their own ranks– two on the eve of their retirement – on charges of collaborating with Baby and assisting in her escape. One of them was a source, which made it more than an ordinary news story.
How much more was there to this saga?
In this story, the police wouldn’t admit that the case was over, not to the court, not to the accused and certainly not to reporters. They were obliged to keep going. By autumn, the case had crumbled and Baby was free.
Two different police departments conducted parallel but separate investigations. Both provided clues but failed to answer the most pressing questions. They revealed much more about Baby and the events and circumstances which had brought her to that point in her life. A plain reading of the investigation reports showed there was more to this story. The answers lay with Baby.
Meeting the lady on the hill
I first met Baby in her home in Worli in September 2015. Prashant Nadkar, a senior photojournalist colleague and I trekked up the hill for nearly a half an hour in a drizzle trying to locate her home in an unfamiliar slum. The ordinariness of it all -- this portly aaji in her 50s, her cramped habitat -- was stark. You would not remember if you passed by her on the street; just another face on the street.
Baby was only weeks out of jail and fretting like a caged tiger. She had no reason to speak with me that day, or subsequently, save for a desire to balance the scales and the confidence of one vindicated by law. And also because nothing seems to scare her. It’s like she says every time we meet, “Dawood ki behen ka matter police ne itna uchchala kya? Mereko drug queen kyun banaya?” (Did the police make such a big deal about the case of Dawood Ibrahim’s sister? Why did they call me a Drug Queen?)
There would not be a book if she hadn’t been as frank as she has been.
Baby does not like the limelight. The time was not right when I got in touch with her in 2020 with the idea to write a book chronicling the case. That summer actress Rhea Chakraborty had endured the same public trial that Baby faced five years prior to that time.
It took her a few minutes before she recalled my name. Then she thundered, “Mera matter phir se kyun uchchal rahe hain? Inko maloom nahi kya mera case khatam ho gaya? (Why is the media talking about me again? Don’t they know my case is over?)”
Her outburst seemed out of context at first and then the corrective lenses dropped -- a certain TV channel had found a pretext to dust off a report from 2015 on ‘Mumbai’s Drug Queens’ and air it with the addition of Chakraborty’s name.
Once she decided to speak, she was frank. The investigation was also blighted with allegations of corruption. The officer who handled the probe into the reveal at Kalokhe’s home, was trapped by the Maharashtra Anti Corruption Bureau in 2016 for allegedly demanding bribe from Baby to submit a closure report in court.
His arrest was announced the same evening. Apart from being the complainant, her role in the investigating officer’s arrest was kept under wraps. When I asked her about it, she described the operation in great detail, with an almost sadistic relish. She indicated: Don’t cross me.
This is one of those stories, people say, that work as an elevator pitch. It blows your mind in a few short sentences.
A case based on police’s claims of a carload haul of a highly addictive drug should not collapse months later. Something has to have gone phenomenally wrong.
Hunting for answers wasn’t easy. There were plenty of lies and misdirection to sift through – so many false dawns, which were just that. Many roads which led nowhere. Instances where the two police investigation reports contradicted each other. Some of those involved in the investigation had clammed up. Baby was never going to tell.
To find the answers, an unadvisedly long time was spent with Meow Meow dealers on Worli Seaface and on bikes built to break the speed limit. I returned to everyone I had first interviewed in 2015 with new questions. But only one question really needed answering: So what do you think happened?
I parsed through every word of the police reports, but that wasn’t enough. There were still too many gaps. These were plugged only when a few right-hearted daredevils dug out vital documents. I also went to the one place which unravelled the mystery at the heart of this story: the government forensic science laboratory.
It is almost eight years to the day that this story began for me as a nightmare and this is my attempt to answer the questions I had started out with.
So what really happened? Read on. I won’t tell you.
(‘Meow Meow: The incredible true story of Baby Patankar’ by Srinath Rao has been published by Harper Collins, and released recently.)