Sunday, 17 April 2011



Women in the gangland? And in Mumbai? Oh yes, they were there too amid the male-dominated underworld of that city. Over the decades, S Hussain Zaidi, as a veteran crime journalist, has seen it all, and as he puts it, he was “fascinated” by the women criminals. “I realised they were gutsier, far more scheming and lethal when it came to pursuing their goals...” he writes in his book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands. And thus we get to know about the ladies who ran their gangs and illegal businesses --- drugs, prostitution rackets, adulterated oil and the like --- with precision and acumen that have been stuff of legend.

Zaidi picks out 13 women from the underworld: among them are Jenabai who was revered by the likes of Haji Mastan and other gang lords; Gangubai, the matriarch of Kamathipura --- Mumbai's red-light area; Ashraf aka Sapna who ran a gang to take revenge against Dawood Ibrahim, but was brutally murdered; Jyoti, the drug baroness of Reay Road; and their ilk.

The authors deal with the stories of these women like racy thrillers. Sprinkled with a dash of imagination, the reportage and first-person accounts flow smoothly, just as any other page-turner would do. That all these characters are real add to the thrill of reading, and the effect is riveting. One may just feel awed to know about the power that these ladies wielded.

But the authors have successfully gone beyond invoking thrill and awe. The book actually becomes a wonderful sociological study of a dark world. The life of each of these women comes to fore with much vividness --- be it as a wife, or a mother, or that of a lady Robin Hood. That most of these women were victims of circumstances and were forced to become criminals may make one somewhat sympathetic towards them. Zaidi, however, never tries to glorify them and leaves it to the reader to decide.

The settings span across Mumbai which have been described with much acuity. One gets a sense of the places --- the dingy lanes, roads and the buildings; the sinister gloom that hangs like a veil all over these locales. They weave with the history of the city to make the reader well acquainted with a world of crime that is, as Vishal Bharadwaj writes in the Foreword, “juicier than spirituality”.

The chapters dealing with the wives and girls of the criminal dons make for interesting read, particularly the effort to bring alive the psyche of Shameem (gangster Chhota Shakeel's love interest), through the excerpts of phone and email conversations between the two. But overall I felt that the stories in these chapters are a bit hurried. Maybe because the roles of these ladies were limited and they were in the shadows of their men.

An interesting inclusion in the book is the story of Monica Bedi who was, for years, the love interest and partner of gangster Abu Salem. I would call this inclusion as an exception, because Monica wasn't any 'mafia queen' and has now moved out of Salem's life. Perhaps the authors thought of telling her story to offer us a quick glimpse of the much-known influence of the underworld in Mumbai's film industry. Or perhaps they wanted to remind how Monica's account could also be the tale of so many other aspirants who want to be known as screen artistes, but end up as dejected discards.

Along with some of the rare black-and-white photographs of the women criminals and those of the places, this book stands out among the books on Mumbai and will satiate the minds that have been curious about these extraordinary women in the underworld.

Mafia Queens of Mumbai
S Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges
Rs 250