As we all know, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is one of the most successful novels ever written. Published in 1969 it sold tens of millions of copies and was turned into a grand cinematic franchise. Perhaps the reason for its success can be traced to the fact that this was the first time that we ordinary novel readers—or cine-goers—felt we got a ringside view of the American underworld, its social complexities, its codes and systems.

Pulp writer Puzo (1920-99) chronicled a fictional mafia family, but apparently there were enough similarities to real characters for some to feel it was a roman-à-clef—to such an extent that singer Frank Sinatra once allegedly attacked Puzo in a restaurant.

I thought of Puzo while reading the just published My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia by newspaper proprietor and social activist Agni Sreedhar. This tell-all account of what goes on when ordinary people sleep is a reworking of Sreedhar’s autobiography Dadagiriya Dinagalu which won the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi Award, and was also made into a Kannada movie.

Crucial parts of Sreedhar’s story take place at the Lalbagh Botanical Garden, Bangalore. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

parts of Sreedhar’s story take place at the Lalbagh Botanical Garden, Bangalore

The die was cast after his brother almost got his legs chopped off by machete-wielding thugs in a sad case of mistaken identity. Obviously this called for revenge, which in turn led, step by step, to Sreedhar becoming one of the most powerful underworld figures. He documents this journey, combining it with perhaps the first proper history of the Bangalore underworld, up to the point when he, after a few jail stints, ultimately renounces criminal life in the late 1990s.

Apart from the parallel themes, The Godfather and My Days in the Underworld are also similar in their thorough descriptions of crime syndicates and their members. Sreedhar shares piquant details about how, for example, the Bangalore gangsters (in those days) travelled in auto-rickshaws loaded with machetes and met for important discussions at Kamat hotels, the innocuous vada-and-sambhar joints that dot many a street in town.

Another coincidence is that Puzo and Sreedhar have a favourite novelist in common: Fyodor Dostoevsky. While Puzo’s main influence is The Brothers Karamazov, Sreedhar refers, in an interview, to Crime And Punishment. He was a bookish gangster and according to the autobiography always carried a bag with two machetes (“longs" in underworld lingo) and two books to read while on a job.

Sreedhar’s book
Sreedhar’s book

But do books like these glorify crime? Although Sreedhar himself may have found inspiration in books, I doubt that anybody who reads My Days in the Underworld would want to live such a difficult, dangerous, treacherous, and not very rewarding life. After a career as a big-time gangster, one of Sreedhar’s friends is in the end hit in the chest by a barrage of bullets while he’s in an Ambassador car near the Lalbagh Botanical Garden.

At times psychological insights are offered into the workings of these criminal minds. Those moments are really what this book is about—the glimpses of unexpected weaknesses and strengths in people, such as when Sreedhar goes to jail and notes the class system behind bars:

“It was interesting that only the lower and upper class criminals were not ashamed or upset about being in jail. Middle-class morality is truly a universal affliction; it was only the middle class offenders who were mortified about their imprisonment. They would wail and mourn for days because they were the only ones from their families who had ever been jailed, and it was difficult to console them."

So although it occasionally reads like a thriller—an Indian version of The Godfather—this is a true story of how a teenager came to Bangalore with a copy of Mario Puzo’s book, became known as a don, managed to reform himself, and survived to tell the tale. Candid and occasionally surprisingly funny, this is nothing short of a must-read.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

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