Rakesh Chand Maria’s nonpareil fascination for the mafia and his grip on organized crime is legendary. The 56-year-old can list the warts of every gangster who has ever crossed his path. My favourite is his name for Chhota Rajan’s lieutenant D.K. Rao—the Black Mamba, because the snake by that name holds on to its smaller prey until it stops moving. It strikes larger enemies repeatedly.

Maria’s indispensability to the police force comes from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Mumbai mafia. He has in-depth knowledge about various organized crime outfits and terrorist organizations. In the mafia, he will tell you about men at the top, their mid-level managers, coordinators, hawala dealers, shooters, lawyers, even the lowest errand boy in the gang hierarchy.

Throw him a gangster’s name and he can rattle off his father’s profession, his first crime in police records and his current location.

Maria with his family. Photo: Adil Jain/Verve

As the newly appointed police commissioner of Mumbai, an adequate fix of action awaits him.

Maria’s last stints at the city’s police headquarters were hugely impactful. When a series of bomb blasts at Mumbai’s iconic landmarks on 12 March 1993 left 257 dead and over 800 injured, Maria, then a deputy police commissioner (DCP), managed to make a breakthrough in the case in the first 24 hours. In two months, the police arrested over 150 people. When Maria finally managed to break key witness Badshah Khan and got him to turn approver, his testimony helped in the conviction of over 100 people in the case.

Maria was hailed as the most celebrated officer in the Mumbai police, eclipsing his peers. The Mumbai police may not have come out smelling of roses after the serial blasts (the force was widely accused of custodial torture and arresting Muslims who had nothing to do with the blasts), but Maria made his mark in this one eventful chapter of the city’s history.

For all his detractors, of whom there are many within the police force and outside, nobody would dispute that the bomb blast investigations were tailor-made for Maria’s feral persona, not adequately captured in Anurag Kashyap’s 2004 film Black Friday. In real life, Maria looks deadly, not somebody to be trifled with. He is tall and his slightly bulging eyes can strip your defences in no time. He is the Rajinikanth of Mumbai’s police. He eats, drinks, sleeps and lives the police force. Surprising, considering that he hails from a Bollywood family. His father Chand Maria was a film producer and had a production house called Kala Niketan. Maria virtually grew up on film sets.

Soon after the serial blasts, Maria became the Mumbai police’s bulwark against organized crime. His offensives against mobsters like Chhota Shakeel, Abu Salem and the Arun Gawli gang were deadly. He developed personal contacts with informants and remained hands-on in every case the crime branch pursued.

Maria was trained in Tokyo, Japan, in traffic management in 1992-93 and returned to take charge of Mumbai traffic. He had the additional charge of zone-IV on 12 March 1993. The serial blasts changed his destiny and the course of his career as he took over as DCP, crime detection. From there, he went to the state police headquarters. He also had a stint as railway police commissioner. He returned to the crime branch as additional commissioner and, later, took over as joint commissioner, crime.

“Rakesh Maria is a rare example of honesty, dedication commitment, hard work and sleepless nights all put together in one individual," says film-maker and Maria’s friend Vidhu Vinod Chopra. “I have had the privilege of observing him from close quarters and what shocks me every time is that here is a man who puts his duty above everything else, including himself and his own family."

Maria hardly sleeps. His informants set the habit by calling him at odd hours like 2am. In the three years that he was in the crime branch, from 1993-96, the unit boasted of an enviable track record.

Maria was abruptly ousted from the crime branch when his team raided the house of Jaidev Thackeray, son of the late Shiv Sena party chief Bal Thackeray, and found some restricted species of animals in his personal collection of pets. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine was at the helm in Maharashtra and Maria was promptly shunted to an insignificant posting of assistant inspector general, establishment, at the state police headquarters. There he was sought after by senior officers like P.S. Pasricha and Rahul Gopal, who did not start their lunch until Maria joined them.

The crime branch baton was passed on to many police officers, some of them very good at policing but abysmal failures in this department. The benchmark was always Maria. Everybody within the police force, and even the political dispensation, knew that Maria was central to the crime branch. The moment he was elevated to the rank of deputy inspector general (DIG), he was back at the crime branch, posted as the additional commissioner of police, crime.

Kay Kay Menon as Maria in ‘Black Friday’

Eventually, in the new century, when organized crime ceased to be of as much concern as terrorism, Maria took over as the anti-terrorism squad (ATS) chief after Hemant Karkare was shot dead by Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani militant who was captured alive after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. As head of the state’s ATS, Maria cracked modules of Indian Mujahideen and sundry terror outfits. He is known to keep his officers on their toes. Ask his team members and most of them will complain of his 9pm daily review meetings.

He is fiercely possessive of his turf—so much so that he is the only officer in Mumbai who had no qualms crossing swords with the Delhi police special cell when its team landed in Mumbai chasing Yasin Bhatkal, alleged founder-leader of the militant outfit Indian Mujahideen. Maria’s team of officers were on the prowl for Bhatkal as well. In the ensuing confusion, two Indian Mujahideen operatives managed to walk away.

The Delhi police and the media squarely blamed Maria, claiming it was lack of coordination that helped the terrorists escape. Maria got a lot of flak from all quarters. He had to call a press conference to clear the ATS name. In the department, his rivals claimed that Maria’s competitive spirit was his undoing in this particular case.

When he was hounded by the press, Maria said, “Based on my 31 years of service, I say there should be competition." When he was with the crime branch, his officers were competing with the ATS and when he went to the ATS, his team was competing with the crime branch.

Ask him about his priorities as the police commissioner and his reply is sharp, “Security for women in this city and zero tolerance towards crime."

He has chalked out an elaborate plan to tackle crime, “I have instructed the crime branch to go after the organized gangs at full throttle, while the local police stations will man the streets for safety and security. Both teams have been asked to make lists of 10 wanted criminals in each police station and crime unit and give me feedback on their success after a fortnight."

“I’m going to make every police officer accountable," says Maria who was settling down for lunch at 5pm when I called him soon after he took over as commissioner on 15 February.

What are his plans to monitor terrorism? He said: “The agencies have been laying down an emphasis on techint, which is technological surveillance and intelligence gathering. But I would like to revert to humint, which is human intelligence and informant network. Not that I will disregard techint but I will make use of both the methods to keep an eye on terrorists and their modules."

Personally speaking, like most crime reporters, I owe many breaking stories to Maria when he was DCP, crime detection, Mumbai police. Like so many film-makers who meet him before initiating a movie, I mine his memory before taking a plunge into every book that I write.

I once asked him about his achievements and source of strength. He replied, “I would say I got lucky".

Mumbai just got lucky.

S. Hussain Zaidi is the author of Black Friday, Mafia Queens of Mumbai and Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia. The sequel to Dongri to Dubai, Byculla to Bangkok, priced 299, is out in book stores.

Also Read : Excerpt | Byculla to Bangkok