Book# 30 Mafia Queens of Mumbai

Sometimes the greatest success of a book is in challenging the set notions of our minds. Would you have thought that a Convent-schooled Gujarati girl from upscale Breach Candy in Mumbai would one day become not only the feared and respected wife of a mafia don, but also the very reason her husband joined the underworld? I don’t know about you, but to me there is something very scary about this sort of unpredictability. Common sense dictates that this girl would have married a well-to-do Gujarati boy with a medical or engineering degree, or perhaps a successful family business. The closest she would come to breaking the law would be when she jumps a traffic light or two. You certainly wouldn’t expect her to be involved – directly or indirectly – in murders, bombings and kidnappings.

The above story is that of Neeta Naik, a Shiv Sena corporator who had encouraged her husband to join the underworld, and who was later killed on his orders. Naik is just one of the many remarkable women portrayed in Mafia Queens of Mumbai – bootleggers, drug baronesses, murderers and police informers – whose stories are little known to the larger public. And yet, many of them such as freedom fighter turned bootlegger Jenabai played a key role in the development of the Mumbai underworld. Stories such as hers are whispered in the bylanes of Dongri, Antop Hill and Kamathipura, and are rarely reported in the mainstream media which has usually focused on the stories of the big male dons like Dawood Ibrahim, Vardharajan Mudaliar, Haji Mastan, Chhota Rajan and Arun Gawli. Neither do they find expression in cinema, which has seen some fine films like Company and Satya being made about the Mumbai mafia.

With this book, veteran crime journalist S. Hussain Zaidi, along with Jane Borges, seeks to examine the psyche of these female criminals. This is not a glorification exercise, the introduction clearly states, but one can’t help feel a sneaking admiration for these women who coolly faced down policemen, ran smuggling empires and gave assassination orders. It can’t have been easy for them, and in some cases, such as those of Sapna Didi and Neeta Naik, the end was grisly. A few of them, such as Gangubai Kathewali of Kamathipura, were victims who eventually became the system’s biggest champions, while others, such as Sujata Nikhalje and Padma Poojary were crafty, ambitious women who sought  power and wealth through illegal means. But none of them, the authors point out, can be considered “blank slates written upon by dangerous male mafia members”.

The stories, many of which seem apocryphal, have been pieced together from police records, interviews with family members, neighbours and journalists and newspaper reports, as well as one-on-one interviews with the subjects themselves, whenever possible.

It’s mostly written in a dry, workmanlike prose which works well with the authors intention of not sensationalizing the content. However, stories like these – thrilling and utterly page-turning, despite the lackluster prose – deserve something more purple. In fact, the authors have intermittently attempted a more ‘thrilling’ style of writing, especially when they hand over the narrative voice to their subjects or their associates and this is when the book really packs a punch. The story of Sapna Didi, narrated by Hussain Ustara, is one such – it has all the drama of a Bollywood masala film, and Ustara the narrator, does it full justice.

I would highly recommend this book for those who want their world-view challenged, as well as to those who’re simply looking for a thrilling read.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Book #29 Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

I know, I know. I’m unforgivably late in posting. I admit I haven’t got much reading done; as far as the October reading challenge is concerned, I have egg on my face. I read far fewer than the required ten books. But…I have travelled a lot in the last three weeks, besides also celebrating Diwali in a proper traditional way, with lots of lights and no fire crackers.

These aren’t excuses. I know there isn’t one that I can offer. After all, it doesn’t take me very long to write a post, edit it and then publish it. What does take time, however,  is getting started, and often I end up convincing myself that if it isn’t a cracker of a start, it’s better to put it off till later.

Today’s post is about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’ve been wanting to write about it for very long, ever since I read it way back sometime in July or August. It’s one of those few books that affect you so deeply that you linger on in their world, long after you’ve turned the final page. Questions nag at you, doubts nibble away at the edge of your consciousness and although unspeakable things have happened over the course of the story, you realise that it’s a world you long to be a part of. There is great beauty in there, terrible and terrifying though it is. You know there’s a price to pay, but you also know that you’re willing to pay that price.

It is with ruminations along similar lines that Richard Papen, the narrator, opens The Secret History. He wonders:

““Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now i think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

Richard’s big weakness – his willingness to turn a blind eye to the ugly side of otherwise beautiful things – becomes the reader’s biggest weakness as well. Richard is a skilled narrator and through his eyes we view with wide-eyed wonder the Hampden College in New England, and especially, the small intimate community of Classics scholars on campus.

Richard, who is from California, would love to have had a trust fund and ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. Instead, he comes from a solid middle class background. He’s so embarrassed by this that he invents a glamorous LA background and showbiz friends. Not that it helps him get a place in the eccentric Julian Morrow’s exclusive Classics course.  However, Richard manages to ingratiate himself with the students, and eventually Julian himself, and soon finds himself sitting alongside as colourful a cast of characters as he could have hoped for.  There are the twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, “with epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels.” There’s the loud, cheerful, and vaguely vulgar Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran.  The most “exotic” of the lot is Francis Abernathy, with his elegant clothes, while the leader of the group is Henry Winter: built big enough to be an athlete, but a confirmed academic. He is perhaps the sharpest mind in the group and is initially distrustful of Richard. Eventually, he proves to be a firm and loyal friend.

Richard is so much in love with his new friends, that he often blinds himself to their less loveable qualities. We fall in love with this group too and perhaps envy them their lives spent in pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It’s the ultimate luxury.

But all unpleasant things must come to the surface sooner or later. The catalysing event in The Secret History is a Bacchanal that the students perform, and it  goes horribly wrong. It’s the beginning of a slippery slope, as secrets and betrayals pile up, and we come to the awful death that is mentioned in the story’s Prologue. Richard watches helplessly as the people he worshipped simply go to pieces and by the end, yet another tragedy delivers the fatal blow to friendships that once seemed unshakeable.

Cropped screenshot of James Stewart from the t...

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This is one of those books that will keep you awake way past your bedtime. It isn’t merely the suspense. This is a ruminative, meditative sort of book and one of the main ideas that it broods over is the idea of youth infatuated with its own possibilities. The students are young, intelligent and beautiful; they’re also the archetypal intellectuals. Hubris mixes with curiosity to disastrous results, as the group falls in love with an idea and tries it out in real life as some sort of ‘intellectual experiment’. (In some ways, they reminded me of Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan, the brilliant but seriously flawed antagonists of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. They decide to prove their superiority by committing the “perfect crime” and one of the concepts that guides their actions is Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.)

And yet, despite the awful things that the six friends in The Secret History end up doing to each other, the overall tone is one of regret, not horror. You, the reader, are already emotionally invested in the characters, so lovingly have they been created, and you’re in love with their world of academia and ideas. When they all drift apart in the end, all you want is for them to forgive, forget and get back together again.