Booknotes: Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands

In Indian culture and society, a lot of the talk/news related to Mumbai mafia and gang violence/crime is mostly about the men–the ganglords, their aides, and their henchmen. Often, the only women we read of (or see in Bollywood movie versions) tend to be the virtuous, long-suffering wives or mothers, or the glamorous arm candy or objects of desire. Though Mumbai’s mafia men, the underworld, and organized crime have all been portrayed in movies over the decades, the cultural fascination truly took hold of the collective imagination with the 1998 movie, Satya, which was about a turf war between two Mumbai ganglords.

So a book about the far lesser-known mafia women is irresistible for the primary reason that the authors offer in their introduction:

They are fascinating women because they push the boundaries of our dominant moral codes.

S Hussain Zaidi is a well-credentialed investigative and crime journalist and has covered the Indian mafia for decades. A previous book by Zaidi, Black Friday, was made into a rather decent movie about the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts by another respected Bollywood director, Anurag Kashyap, and titled Black Friday. A later book, Mumbai Avengers, about the 2008 Mumbai blasts was adapted by director Kabir Khan into a not-very-good movie, Phantom. Vishal Bharadwaj, a respected Bollywood director, has also written a gushing foreword, having worked with S Hussain Zaidi for research on one of his own movies, Kaminey.

Jane Borges was a young sub-editor with The Asian Age when she was encouraged by Zaidi, then the editor, to write more and co-author this book with him. She talked about the book process, from concept to finish, in this interesting interview.

Let me start with the positives. I liked that this book did not sensationalize crime, glorify these women, or present them as victims. There isn’t a murder scene on every other page, so don’t reach for this book if that’s what you’re looking for.

There is an earnest desire to present the truth, so that, where the authors are not able to back up an anecdote with evidence, they are upfront and honest about it.

Thirteen or so women are presented in this book. Their stories are, as the authors’ introduction and the eight pages of acknowledgments indicate, mostly from court documents, police records, cop historians, reliable journalists, published news stories. There were also extensive interviews with friends, neighbors, independent journalists, retired policemen, etc. The thoroughness in checking and corroborating sources, conducting interviews, and so on, cannot be faulted.

Mumbai’s mafia world is an incestuous one with treacherous alliances and deep networks that include local/national politicians, global businessmen, Bollywood celebrities, and, yes, law makers/enforcers. I imagine it is difficult to write a book about this milieu while many of these folks are still alive without annoying someone important enough to make you “disappear” if they do not like what they read. So, in addition to the rigorous source-checking, there is an evident abundance of caution here. Do not expect any major revelations.

What I found disappointing, I must admit, is the way the stories were presented. A caveat: I tend to be more finicky about the issues below than your average reader because of my own writerly approaches and my stint as editor of a literary magazine. I realize that many others will not be bothered by these things.

First, the narratives were uneven in a lot of places with points of view jumping all over the place and clumsy grammar and punctuation–nothing a good copy editor could not have fixed. It got rather annoying after I was stumbling over these errors on pretty much every page.

Second, a decent developmental editor could have helped with the overall structure and content flow. In some places, the authors presented fictional reconstruction through scenes that did nothing for the overall story. For example, the first story about Jenabai Daaruwali opened with a lengthy scene of several pages about Zaidi, in first-person point of view, walking through a cemetery and discovering her unmarked grave. I presume this was an attempt to hook the reader, like an opening scene in a movie, but the prose did not work for me because it did not engage the senses as such scenes ought to do and because of the poor narration–e.g. badly-structured sentences with clauses in the wrong places. There were more such fictional constructs within this first story and I cannot help but think they did it to add more padding where they ran short of factual, shareable details. A couple other stories, e.g. the one about Monica Bedi, one-time actress and gangster Abu Salem’s girlfriend, got this cinematic scene-building too. Again, most of these scenes failed to hit the mark with moving the story forward with appropriate tension or with understanding “the minds and psyches of woman criminals,” as the authors said they were aiming to do in their introduction.

Third, there isn’t more factual information than what we might find in the public domain by simply googling these women. Of course, the book saves us the time of having to read through several links without knowing which ones are truthful–Indian news media is definitely not known for integrity and veracity.

I did get through the book, however, because of my fascination with the overall subject and  these shadowy, little-known brave mafia women who risked a lot for their lovers/husbands/benefactors.

If I had to pick the one woman who most fascinated me, I’d say it was Gangubai Kathiawadi–the matriarch of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s most well-known and India’s oldest, British-era red-light district. She had been sold there by her own husband, with whom she had run away from her home in Gujarat.

Her journey from being forced into prostitution from an early age to reaching the top of the local hierarchy through contested elections has, surely, a lot more heartache and drama than we learn in the few pages here. She is practically worshipped now by the women of Kamathipura. And, while there are many legendary anecdotes about her life, we only get the apocryphal one about her meeting then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss the plight of sex workers and the need to protect it. Their conversation, as reported in the book, is fascinating and I want it to be true. No spoilers.

No doubt, there will be a few Bollywood movies about these women. Coming later this year, we will see the story of Haseena Parker, the sister of Dawood Ibrahim. She’s not one of the 13 women here, though her story bears some similarities to theirs because many moved within the same circles–sometimes as friends, but often as foes.

In the end, the book has left me wanting more because a whole lot has been left out than put in. I don’t want yet another superficial factual recounting or over-dramatized, fictionalized storytelling about stereotypical women drawn to crime out of desperate love for a man or the lack/desire for money. I would like to see deeper psychological studies or a broader cultural history that gives us more well-rounded individuals who impacted not just those they worked with closely but also shaped the overall societies they were/are a part of.

Women who secure and wield power in predominantly male fields in patriarchal, class-bound, caste-ridden societies are, as Zaidi wrote in his introduction and Bharadwaj in his foreword, highly complex and unusually clever. I wish this book had shown us more than faint, fleeting glimpses of their complexity and cleverness.

Oh, if you’d like to “watch” the book narrated, here you go. I have not watched this as I discovered the videos after reading the book. They appear to be verbatim text, though.

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