When dusk and its magic light descend on the choked lanes of Dongri, its tumult becomes tolerable. Outside Jaffer bhai’s Delhi Darbar, a relatively new entrant in this south Mumbai ghetto, kebabs fresh out of bubbling oil attract people who are breaking their Ramzan fast. It is a particularly muggy evening, one of those when the monsoon showers are blocked by a dense layer of clouds.

Police vans are parked on almost every corner of the neighbourhood. Besides the residual tension of a communal flare-up that had made local news recently, the cops are lining up for a visit by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, to an iftaar party hosted at Dongri’s Kesar Baug Hall.

Microcosm: (clockwise from top left) Surti in Palla Gully, which appears in his novel Sufi; streetside iftaar treats; the terrace of the building in which Surti grew up; an iftaar dinner hosted at Khwaja Hall for NCP leader Sharad Pawar; and a crowded iftaar evening in Dongri. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

All the local newspapers reported the fracas between the owner of a cyber café and four other Muslim residents, and Hindus demanding donation for Ganesh Utsav. Within a day, Shiv Sena and Congress representatives met and negotiated peace. The visit by Pawar and other NCP leaders was another gesture of peace, some residents of the area said. Some said it was just a normal Ramzan ritual—politicians come and go.

But Dongri only belongs to its own people, as its famous dons—Karim Lala, Dilip Aziz, Haji Mastan, Yusuf Batla, Mamu Langda, Tariq Takla, Moin Totla and Dawood Ibrahim—would say. In the last decade, the godowns where once smugglers stored gold, radio sets and cash, now belong to Hindu traders who use them as godowns for factory goods or as offices. A Hindu-Muslim population is beginning to emerge.

In films, Dongri has mystery and danger, and an exotic edginess. Parts of the recent Hindi film Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, about Haji Mastan, the legendary smuggler from Dongri, were filmed here. A new film, Bhindi Bazaar, directed by Ankush Bhatt, was showcased at this year’s Venice International Film Festival. It’s a thriller revolving around two pickpocket mafias in this area. A few years ago, Aamir, another thriller, reiterated Dongri’s reputation as a dangerous Muslim ghetto.

I am in Dongri with a man who can defy all the stereotypes associated with it. Author, painter and cartoonist Aabid Surti, whose famous Hindi autobiographical novel Musalman (1995) is now an English paperback with the intriguing title Sufi: The Invisible Man of the Underworld, grew up here. The book is the story of Aabid, the painter, and his friend Iqbal, an underworld kingpin under whom Ibrahim worked in his younger days. The characters, lanes and buildings of Dongri appear in Surti’s book with their real names. In English, Sufi is stripped of linguistic beauty. But every detail of conversations and situations that eventually force Iqbal and Aabid to go their separate ways is reported assiduously from memory. More importantly, it is a map of Dongri in words.

Surti, 75, is a Khoja Muslim from Gujarat whose grandparents chose to stay in Dongri during Partition. His grandmother was a staunch Gandhian. “Her one meeting with Gandhi was a story she recreated to every visitor to our house, adding a lot of her own colour," Surti says. Surti is not a devout Muslim, seemingly indifferent to the freshly cooked food on the streets of Dongri and the adjacent Mohammad Ali Road, a food mecca during Ramzan.

Our companion for the walk through Dongri is Surti’s cousin Sajjad Wadiwala. The second-floor Wadiwala apartment absorbs the cacophony of the streets outside without any filter. The living room has photographs of his daughter Alina, an aspiring model, who was a contestant in the TV reality show Bigg Bossin 2008. Wadiwala first takes us to the apartment—in pure Mumbai vocabulary, kholi—where Surti grew up. The terrace where Iqbal and Aabid spent hours is now made of glittering marble. “The only thing that crosses my mind when I come to this spot is a blast that I saw in the early 1940s. The nearby docks where Haji and his men used to smuggle goods and gold were ablaze. Severed hands and fingers and slabs of gold exploded into the air. A chunk of gold fell here. I couldn’t believe my eyes," says Surti.

The terrace directly overlooking Khwaja Hall has people watching Pawar at the dinner, greeting local leaders and waving to men and women from the mohalla who are looking out of their matchbox windows.

Walking past the Hazrat Abbas Dargah on Palla Gully, through Munda Gully (a serpentine alley that tapers out into two exits on the main road and was once famous because petty smugglers escaped from cops through it) and Charnulla, we were jostled by barricading policemen, shopkeepers and residents. “It is like this every evening," Wadiwala tells us.

Dongri was once the hub of the Khilafat movement in Mumbai. Saadat Hasan Manto met Muslim intellectuals and poets here for soirees over alcohol, Urdu poetry and debates on nationalism and colonial rule. It was the first neighbourhood of immigrants who came to make it in Mumbai’s film industry. “K. Asif and Mehboob lived here. It was what today Mira Road is," Surti says.

His years as an adolescent and teenager in Dongri were not exactly ghetto life. “Students from the JJ School of Art used to come here to hang out. Some of them were my first influences to pursue art," he recalls. Surti joined the JJ School in the early 1950s. Later, he dabbled in commercial art and created many characters for Indrajal comics. He has returned to painting after a gap of 30 years with mixed media works; an exhibition is on the cards as soon as he finds a sponsor.

In Dongri, Aabid bhai is not a familiar sight. Many old acquaintances approach him as we walk through Dongri towards Mohammad Ali Road. “It’s a neighbourhood that does not have much charm for me any more," Surti says. Economically, Dongri has been in a limbo forever. It is south Mumbai’s “other", a ghetto imagined and interpreted by film-makers, and the home of famous dons, its self-proclaimed protectors.

“I decided to leave Dongri, when one day, in the years just before the Emergency, my son came home after playing cricket and told me India defeated Pakistan by cheating them. I realized it was time to leave home," Surti says, signing a fresh copy of Sufi he has in his bag.

I later discover it’s a book written with love for, and lament about, a lost home.