Inside Shagun Jewellers, there were four guys, armed with hockey sticks, who were methodically demolishing the shiny glass showcases and marble desktops. The owner was whimpering and crying, but they didn’t pay a heed.
“Bas karo.”, a mild voice said. “This is enough for today. Ratan Seth, I’ll be back tomorrow. If you still don’t pay 50,000 to Gani Bhai, then instead of your shop, we will smash your bones.”
The owner of the voice wouldn’t have been out of place in a bank cashier’s chair. He was a thin, wiry young man with a pencil moustache. Fair and tall, he was a small time gangster of Teli Gully, Salim Shaikh. He hated the term gangster and already had thrashed a guy for calling him that. He considered himself an artist and recited Urdu and Persian ghazals. He had a mild manner, which caused his threats to sound more menacing.
The hoodlums stepped out of the shop and swaggered towards Kansara Chawl. Salim stopped at a roadside stall outside Bhuleshwar Market and bought a lottery ticket. This was one addiction, which he indulged in. He had never won anything substantial, but like a sportsman, he believed that it’s not the winning or losing that’s important. It’s the spirit of sportsmanship, which matters. He always believed that a man should always have a backup plan as an insurance policy, in case of adversity. A double decker bus honked by and Salim jumped into it alone. His cronies vanished into the bylanes of Shaikh Memon Street.
It was late 1976. The country was leading towards the throes of Emergency. MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) and MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act) were to be implemented four months later to fight the gangs proliferating in the growing concrete jungle. Salim was blissfully unaware and wouldn’t really have understood the concept of Emergency. The gangs of Bombay used Rampuri knives, imported from Rampur in UP and handmade handguns, called Katta, imported from Bihar. Assault weapons like AK47, Glock and other sophisticated firearms were unknown to them. It was not the Bhai culture of late eighties, initiated by Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar. It was the Dada culture, nurtured by the infamous trio of the then underworld: Kareem Lala, Haji Mastan Mirza and Yusuf Patel. It was the Golden Era for the gangsters, where they had their own crooked morality and thrived on their personal strength, charisma and blind loyalty of their gang members.
Salim jumped off the moving bus at Gol Deol in Null Bazaar. The Gol Deol is a Shiva temple, plumb in the middle of a road in a Muslim populated area. As a rule, Salim never bought a ticket. Doesn’t government always proclaim that the public transport is a public property? Salim was public. Does anyone pay for using their own property? He went into the crammed and crowded gullies of Chor Bazaar, towards his home in the Pakmodia street.
Appearances can be misleading. In this case, they weren’t. Salim was not your friendly neighborhood hardened criminal. He was a meek guy, who sometimes exploded in an insane fury when provoked. There’s a Polish folklore, which mentions two wolves in a human heart, warring for the ultimate prize – the human psyche. One is benevolent and another malevolent. The winner is the wolf, which one feeds and it makes one good or bad. He was an orphan and associated with the hoodlums of the street at a young age. Due to his fighting prowess and sharp mind, he soon became the right hand of the local area gangster Kadarbhai, who was associated with Karim Lala, the infamous Pathan from Kabul. Salim was not much educated. He could read and write Urdu and Hindi and a few words of English. Karim Lala covered the area from Do Tanki to Agripada and till Camps Corner. The Grant Road and Kamathipura red light areas fell into his fief and were very lucrative. As a rule, Karim Lala didn’t deal in narcotics, which was gradually raising it’s ugly head in the city. Gambling, prostitution, smuggling of cigarettes, watches, alcohol etc and protection, these were the main source of income for the underworld during the seventies.
He met his friend Krishna Sawant, who relayed him a message about the consignment of silver at Ghasbunder in the notorious Darukhana area. People in Bombay believe that Darukhana is named after the multitude of beer bars on the waterfront. The word Daru also means gunpowder in Marathi. Darukhana housed a gunpowder magazine during British Raj. We still have a Gunpowder Road in Mazagaon, which leads to Darukhana. This region has a long coastline and is a natural port. Due to this and lack of policing, this area was and still is a hub of illegal activities. During seventies, it was the prime location for smuggling. A daring and crazy idea formed into the mind of our hero. He took Krishna aside and whispered it in his ears. Krishna looked at him incredulously and screamed, “Kai, weda jhalas ki kai! Are you crazy or something? You will be caught and slaughtered!”
“Not if we time it correctly. We can fly the coop long before anyone is aware of it.”, Salim said with a confidence. Although he was buried to his neck in the illegal activities, the good wolf always won in his heart. His master plan was to reach to the rendezvous, pick up the consignment and run away before the real baddies arrive. He was supposed to relay the message of the consignment to Kadarbhai. He will give out a wrong time, may be two hours later. He can always say that he misunderstood. Darukhana was the area of Haji Mastan Mirza, a dock coolie turned don from Hyderabad, who was a ruthless rival of Karim Lala. Haji Mastan was more of a negotiator than a don, but he was involved into smuggling nonetheless. The missing consignment will be blamed on him. It may start a gangwar, but that was okay. It was a foolproof plan. Krishna wanted none of it. He didn’t want to get rich soon and was happy selling tickets in black outside cinema halls. Salim convinced him and he finally agreed, grumbling.
Scott poet Robert Burns once said in one of his philosophical moods, “The best laid plans of mice and men, are gang aft agley.” No. It’s not a typo. He really wrote ‘Gang Aft Agley’! Those Scott were loonies! What was wrong with plain King’s English? Don’t know why he couldn’t simply say ‘awry’!
On the day of rendezvous, Salim and the quaking Krishna reached the darkened waterfront and scoped out the place. Once they were sure that they are safe, they sat down for a long wait. Around 1am, a torch flickered from a fishing boat, arriving from Uran direction. Salim pulled out a large Everedy torch and blinked it thrice. The smugglers during those era were not much innovative about signalling each others in elaborate codes. A simple flicker of torch sufficed. The small fishing launch turned on its riding lights and came closer to the jetty. Salim reached to it in a dinghy, which they had arranged from a fisherman earlier and met the captain, who had a bandana over the lower half of his face. He unloaded two heavy tea chests in the dinghy. The chests were crammed with 999 grade silver ingots, smuggled from Tangier. Each box was worth 2 lakhs. A princely amount! The launch vanished silently in the darkness. Salim rowed the dinghy jubiliantly to the jetty. They had arranged a handcart to cart away the loot to Carnak Bunder, from there they planned to hire a boat to take them to Bharuch in Gujarat and hide away till the matter was cooled.
They were pushing the cart through the deserted streets of Darukhana, when a torch flashed on Salim’s face and the gruff voice of Kadarbhai shouted, “What the hell are you doing here, you bastard?” Due to some primeval instinct, Salim knew before the light hit his face that he was dead. He ran swiftly in the dark and collided into another guy. He felt a searing pain in his right ribs, where a seven inches long knife gashed him. Krishna took to his heels at the slightest sign of trouble. Salim flew as if the god Niké had lent him his winged shoes! He was bleeding profusely and knew that it was a matter of minutes before he was caught and slaughtered. His ears were ringing with running footsteps behind him and muffled cries, “The bastard double crossed us! Kill him!”
He ran blindly into the narrow street of Mira Datar, a Sufi shrine and jumped the wall and reached the Dockyard Bazaar. The streets were empty. Salim was delirious due to massive loss of blood. His right side was numb and he was hallucinating. He leaned on a light pole. The latest superstar Amitabh Bachchan stared at him in anger, out of a poster of the movie Zanjeer on the wall of Star Talkies opposite Dockyard Station. He blacked out.
Hell was hot and noisy, as Holy Hadis warned. But, did they have trucks in hell? It was an unmistakable sound of a truck starting! Salim opened his eyes. He was lying on a metal cot. His head was splitting and his throat was parched. He looked around frantically, expecting to see menacing faces of the cronies of Kadarbhai. He saw Krishna dozing at a folding metal chair nearby and was startled, then smiled.
Once away from danger, Krishna ventured cautiously to see the fate of his foolhardy friend. He saw the goons carting away the loot and swearing vengeance on Salim, who got away. He followed the blood trail and found our hero in the gutter outside Star Talkies. He took him to Masjid Bunder and hid him in a small room near the truck terminus. He brought a compounder friend, who patched up the nasty gash with 18 stitches and transfused blood and saline. After 2 days, Salim was conscious.
They knew that going back to Pakmodia street will be a suicide now. Salim was penniless. He wanted to get away from there, but didn’t have any place to go. Krishna promised to pawn his bike and get some money for him and offered him Vada Pav to eat, wrapped in newspaper. Salim opened it and tried to eat it. His eyes subconsciously noticed the lottery result of Maharashtra Rajya Lottery. He was amused and felt in his pocket. He pulled out the ticket and checked the number automatically and then looked again unbelievingly. He suddenly shouted with laughter and hugged him. He danced a jig with Krishna and then showed the result. He had won the second prize of 11 lakhs.
His insurance policy had paid off.