Reading, like crime, can be a guilty pleasure. As you turn the pages of a particularly enjoyable read, do you ever find yourself looking over your shoulder? Do you, like me, have trouble banishing the thought that some worthier book is mouldering in the catacombs of the classics? That you ought to have picked up something more “educational”? Or, possibly, something more of the moment that you’ll be quizzed on at a cocktail party? Any of these categories occupies enough mental shelf footage to ensure that even the most engrossing page-turner retains a faint tinge of guilt.
Guilt, of course, is the fear that retribution awaits us around the next corner. And we may fear that by committing an act of reading we do harm—to ourselves, by addling our brains with sensationalism, or to others, by inuring ourselves to real pain and hardship (or to real joy) through escapism. Stories, in any form in which we consume them, have the power to supplant reality and inject themselves into our imagination. Should we not worry that by devoting our attention to a subject we begin to endorse, legitimise, even celebrate it?
Mafia Queens of Mumbai is too much fun to care. Thirteen true stories of black marketeers, prostitution ringleaders, and trained assassins hit these pages with a convincing splatter. They may call it trade paper, but this is pulp at its gritty, graphic best, steeped in juicy detail and relishing every suspenseful twist.
The biggest twist of all, as you will already have guessed, is the fact that each of these menacing underworld figures is a woman. The authors of Mafia Queens make a feeble attempt to describe it as a dispassionate examination of the psychology of women in Mumbai’s underworld, which it is not. It is a gripping thriller that will leave you wanting more.
Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Tranquebar, 290 pages, Rs 250.
By turns dry reportage and first-person confessional, Mafia Queens depicts the troubled lives of female gangsters and mobsters’ molls with a deft storyteller’s hand. Unfolding against the backdrops of Nagpada, Dongri and Byculla, the tales immerse us in the underworld with the sinister ease of film noir. At times we forget the meticulous reporting that produced them, compiled by S. Hussain Zaidi from his decades with the Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age, with original research by reporter Jane Borges.
Zaidi is also the author of Black Friday, the investigation of the minds behind the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts made into an incisive film by Anurag Kashyap and promptly banned. Its crime was its acuity. Zaidi peers not only into gangsters’ clandestine operations but into their even more subterranean inner lives.
“Crime is juicier than spirituality,” writes Vishal Bhardwaj in the foreword. Notwithstanding its authors’ half-hearted warnings, Mafia Queens portrays life outside the law with a sordid glamour—infamy as celebrity. This is hardly a flaw. Are these women so different, after all, from other badly behaved celebrities whose stories captivate us? Yes. They have only two journalists shadowing their moves. In hiding or on the run, in glitzy bungalows or in chawls, whether raking in cash or penniless, these women are operators, fully in control of their worlds. As Zaidi and Borges put it: “Where can an educated, crafty and ambitious woman with dreams of possessing a fortune of billions go if she ends up marrying a small-time thug with no identity of his own? Answer: Anywhere she wants.”
By contrast, feckless police fall repeatedly for the most transparent of ruses. Dons hide in holes dug beneath the gas cylinder; contraband is stashed inside household shrines. The police are played like a harmonium by their informants. The equally impotent judicial system never fails to botch a conviction. In passing, Mafia Queens offers us a tour of Mumbai’s legal landscape past and present by slyly noting such trivia as the location of the former Prohibition Intelligence Section (on the site of today’s Haj House).
Our anti-heroines are never guilty—not in the technical sense, nor in their refusal to compromise. These are a handful of women who lived fearlessly, and Mafia Queens celebrates their spirit. But the real heroes are Zaidi and Borges, who ventured undaunted into the dark corners of the city to illuminate them. The rare book that, like Mafia Queens, peels back Mumbai’s thin veneer of civilization isn’t merely sensational; it’s essential to completing the portrait of a corrupt city. The pleasure of that revelation is one we can embrace without guilt.
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