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.
- Book Review: Mafia Queens of Mumbai: S. Hussain Zaidi (talkingtails.wordpress.com)
- Review of book “Mafia Queens of Mumbai” (myviewoneverything.wordpress.com)