In 1995, while working with this magazine, I also started freelancing for mainstream newspapers like Blitz. Soon after the 1993 blasts, I did a story on a fourth degree torture technique that the cops had devised then. According to this, the police would call women family members of the accused and threaten to violate or humiliate them to coerce the accused to sign the confession statement. This was in 1995 and it appeared in Blitz as a full pager.
But, I always wanted to be with a broadsheet like the Times of India and was looking for someone who could help me. In those days, I had heard of Velly Thevar, someone who was very spunky and brave and had done stories against people like Dawood Ibrahim and the cops too. So, I decided to speak to him and to my surprise, this brave journalist turned out to be a woman. I met her to discuss the stories I had in my mind and it is she who told me that if I had such an inclination, I should move on from my trade magazine and it is she who helped me get into Asian Age. So, that was the first newspaper I joined.
I did a couple of crime stories in Asian Age which were noticed by Sai Suresh Sivaswami of the Indian Express. They were just launching the Express Newsline then and he asked if he could meet me. I met him and was offered a job of a crime reporter. I worked there for five years, until 2000, when I joined the dotcom industry and then after the dotcom crash, I came back and joined Mid-Day, where I worked for five years again. Thereon, I joined Mumbai Mirror.
What is it that interests you in writing about crime and the underworld?
I have been asked this question so many times and I have not known what to say. The underworld doesn’t fascinate me as a journalist as much as people think it must to a crime journalist. As I said earlier, I was working on a general beat in Asian Age; it was only my editor at the Express who wanted me to stick to crime reporting. He had a very weird idea that just because I am a Muslim, I would be good with crime reporting because most of the criminals are Muslims. So, he felt I would get better access. As for me, I was looking for a change of job and in those days, Express was a very big name so I agreed to do crime reporting.
I am sure there are people who may get very fascinated with the crime beat. But for me, the criminals were just subjects. I just bore in mind that I had to write a story in a manner that was interesting for my readers. The only care I took, that journalists today don’t, was to go to the other side of the story, speak to the people and try to get a broader picture. I ensured a balanced story.
How would you describe yourself as a crime journalist since they are considered a different lot?
Well, I think that whenever people look back at an older generation, they feel that theirs was a different era. And, this happens in every field. The same goes for crime journalists too. I don’t think I was very different from today’s lot because 1995 (when I started) wasn’t 30 or 40 decades ago. I just made sure I did my stories without fear or favour which people in today’s era don’t. They are either scared of people like the cops or they want to show favour while doing their stories. Doing something like this is not really being true to the profession.
How safe do you think is crime journalism?
It is if one doesn’t cross the Laxman rekha (line of control). This invisible line of control exists in every profession. Don’t overstep the line and you will always be safe.
Which stories/interviews would you say have helped you get noticed in the industry?
I have done many stories and I am really proud of them. For instance, I had done a story on this High Court judge who had written a book on Islamic laws for a publisher who was connected to a drug baron. That was carried in the Indian Express as an exclusive exposé. I was a given a letter of appreciation by the then editor BV Rao. The story had taken me four months. There was another story I had done on a Muslim head of priests who had siphoned off ` 4 crore of charity money. I had even done a story of a cop who had killed seven people, making the killings look like encounters. Unfortunately, people don’t look at the exposés I have done. They only talk about my stories on Dawood Ibrahim and the underworld. Somehow, readers don’t associate me with my other stories.
How was your rapport with the people you came in contact with in the crime beat? How should one separate personal and professional life?
I never allowed my sources to come home, whether the sources were cops or criminals. I never wined and dined with any of them as shown in movies or like some do in real life. At the most, I must have shared a cup of tea with them on the streets of Mumbai. There won’t be a single person who would have seen me sharing even a cup of tea with a cop at his office, except for one or two of them whom I consider close friends.
So, the idea is to never to become buddy-like with one’s sources. For a journalist, a source should just be the medium to get stories and he must remember that it is the story that is getting him his bread and butter. The sources are not my friends; I don’t consider them my midnight pals whom I could call when I am in distress. I have never visited their homes and I have never gone to their weddings nor have they come to mine. That is the only way to keep oneself safe and away from problems.
You were associated with J Dey at the Indian Express. How would you describe him and your association with him?
Jyoti was a very enthusiastic guy. He entered journalism post 40, an age when most people have completed nearly two decades in the field. He was very dedicated. The Indian Express had hired him for environmental reporting since he was an outdoorsy person. However, once we met, he expressed his desire to try out crime reporting. I knew that he was very fluent in Marathi and in those days, there were just two people who were covering the crime beat, Chandramohan Puppala and me. So, an additional hand was welcome and J Dey joined us. I apprised him of how criminals function, the gang hierarchies and how they are different from the gangs abroad and we ended up developing a bond. And, since I wasn’t a very fitness conscious person and he was, in return, he got me engaged in a fitness regime.
After several years of crime journalism, I remember him telling me that he wanted to do something else. I recollect discouraging him on switching; advising him to be a specialist in what he was good at. I suggested him to write a book, one on women in crime. Although he didn’t take that up, he ended up writing the underworld dictionary, Khallas, he even wrote another book, Zero Dial.
Do you ever get scared?
Yes, I do. I remember, in the Mahabharata, Karna says that those warriors who don’t fear are made of gold. So, a real warrior naturally has to have some degree of fear in him. But, I would like to have faith in the popular belief that beyond fear lays victory. I just keep going. The only fear I get plagued by these days is for my sons. And somehow, it’s known to them (the underworld).
I was in Mid-Day when I was working on Black Friday and I remember getting a call where the caller said to me, ‘I know you have a boy studying in class two.’ I remember I froze, I was numb. My throat had dried up with fear. I always thought I was quite a brave guy, especially when my wife, a crime journalist too, is so brave. But, I immediately figured that if I showed fear then they would arm twist me forever. What I did thereafter was unimaginable. I replied to the caller, saying, ‘Yes, the boy studies in Saraswati Vidyalay and he studies in class 2C.’ The guy just put the phone down. My aggression and fearlessness caught him off guard.
Your interview with Dawood Ibrahim is said to be his last published interview. How would you describe your experience?
By the time I had entered reporting in 1995, the world had already become smaller for Dawood Ibrahim. The bomb blasts had already taken place and the Interpol’s notice was issued against him. The man had already relocated from Dubai to Pakistan, so meeting him was virtually impossible. I had met other criminals like Arun Gawli and Abu Salem but Dawood and Chota Rajan were abroad and they were not willing to reveal their hideouts. So, I didn’t meet them but I wanted to speak to them. If I could interview Arun Gawli inside Central Jail in Aurangabad, I felt I should also speak to his rivals like Dawood. I was very keen on meeting him. But, since that wasn’t going to be possible, I settled for a telephonic interview with him.
After two to three months of trying, I finally got to speak to him and he surprised me. I was perhaps influenced by the portrayal of gangsters in films as rough, coarse and uncouth. But, when I spoke to Dawood, I was received by a very sweet talking, polite and civil man. At first, I thought it was one of his men, either the assistant or some receptionist. But, when he confirmed that it was really him and not one of his men, I was taken aback. I remember back then there was an attack on Outlook magazine’s office for carrying a cover story calling Dawood ‘public enemy number one’. His men had ransacked the office, so Dawood really carried a rough and violent image. In our entire 45-minute long conversation, I didn’t hear him raise his voice even once. In fact, I did rile him up a couple of times with my questions. But, he remained cool, calm and composed throughout.
Speaking of Dawood, one cannot help but mention the infamous Bollywood-mafia nexus. What would you say about that?
See, it’s a fact that every Indian is Bollywood crazy. Politicians and business tycoons are all crazy after stars and Dawood was no different, even he wanted to meet them. At that time, these celebrities would frequent Dubai and have shows there and Dawood would meet them. Then, it didn’t seem like Dawood would want to use them or collaborate with them. But soon after that, these guys (celebrities) on their return would boast of their contacts in Dubai and about meeting Dawood. And, that started intimidating the less powerful people back here. Gradually, most Bollywood personalities that went to Dubai were lavishly hosted by Dawood there. As a result, they would come back thinking that Dawood had become their best pal. That is how it all started. It became fashionable to be friends with Dawood and people have ended up paying very dearly for that.
Considering your beat, you must have often gotten into trouble for your stories. How did you handle the situation?
It would be hard to believe but except once, I haven’t even had a defamation case against me. I had received a notice only once, which too, after my strong reply, couldn’t turn into a defamation case in the court of law.
Was writing always at the back of your mind? How did you get initiated into it?
No, it wasn’t. All good things in my life have happened by accident. Authoring happened when author Vikram Chandra was working on his book Sacred Games and he needed someone who could help him out. I met him in 1996 and took him around the city, to its shady nooks and corners, introducing him to my contacts. Since he was based in the United States, he wasn’t aware of the many places and people I made him meet. After a couple of months, he suggested that I must write a book since I have the city and a lot of information about it at my disposal. But, I always suffered an inferiority complex about my writing skills. I told him that I didn’t think a publisher would give me a chance. He introduced me to David Davidar with whom I discussed various subjects, including biographies of dons, Mumbai’s shady joints, etc. In the course of the conversation, he suggested that I should write a non-fiction book around the 1993 blasts.
Now by 1997, everything was over. And, since the charge sheets were filed and the pages of the documents about it were filed, I thought the subject was a cakewalk. I told him I would take around six weeks to finish the book Black Friday. But, when I actually started writing, I realised the time I had quoted was too less. It took me four years to write that book. I had to read and research, dig deeper beyond what had appeared in the news. While writing, one cannot make a boring, academical compilation of factual information and expect the readers to read it. I don’t write to inform, I write them to entertain, educate and enlighten. Since I knew I wasn’t as good as award-winning writers when it came to writing, I focussed on research material and information, telling my story in a simple way.
Tell us about Dongri to Dubai and how you collated that kind of information.
That book took me seven years and while working on it, I realised that the book was like Draupadi’s sari, it seemed never-ending. Seven years is too long to write a book, but I had to juggle writing with my job as a journalist so as to make ends meet and provide food to my family. It was challenging, because charge sheets and FIRs are difficult documents to understand. Sometimes, even the cops don’t understand them at one go.
What about your latest book, Headley and I, with Rahul Bhatt? How would you describe the Headley ordeal?
I got tired writing about mafia and criminals in three books. I needed a break and also wanted to find out if I could write something else. I thought of choosing a subject that was not about hardcore Mumbai crime. I wanted to write something about the human mind and its complexities. Around this time, Rahul Bhatt called me saying that he was writing a book on his David Headley experience and that he wanted me to co-author it. It was God sent. I agreed and we started working together. I put in my own share of investigation into the subject and when I had finished compiling all the information, I was convinced that this book would be different from my previous books.
Published by Harper Collins, it is a book with a first person dual narration. The books has David Headley’s perspective of his statements to officials and the perspective of Rahul Bhatt, who felt deceived by Headley since he was emotionally attached to him. Rahul looked up to him as a father figure and mentor.
Your books make for perfect movie ideas. Has that been a conscious effort?
I want to be the Jackie Chan of non-fiction who works for entertainment and not the Oscar. I want to write non-fiction books to entertain people. They must love to read the book. I have read so many non-fiction books on subjects like the Mumbai riots and after a point, I would want to keep the book and read it later. I wanted to write books that are ‘unputdownable’. And, the one thing I have learnt from reading books is that the best stories are the ones that one can see and not merely read. That is when I thought I should write to show.
There is a known nexus between crime and politics. Have you witnessed it in your journey as a journalist?
Of course, I have witnessed it. Crime is one intersection where one will see politics, sports, Bollywood, real estate and everything pass through. As Mario Puzo wrote in the novel, The Godfather, ‘No great fortune is built without the involvement of crime’, similarly, some politicians have managed to reach where they have only because of their connection with crime.
Was there any kind of fear or pressure upon you when you were writing your books?
All the publishers that I worked with gave me the freedom to develop the books the way I wanted to. They never dictated terms to me on what to do and what not to. They were very cooperative.
Do you intend to stick to non-fiction? What are you currently working on?
I haven’t given venturing into fiction a thought. Right now, I am working on three non-fictions. I am working on the sequel to my book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai called the Mafia Queens of India, and then a book on the Hindu mafia like Arun Gawli and Amar Naik—a vegetable vendor-turned-don, and a drag baron. Besides. I am writing a book on Abu Salem too.
Do you think journalists today are increasingly losing integrity?
The less said the better about journalists today. These days, they have just become police stenographers. They don’t take the effort to present the other side of the story. They just attend press conferences and file their stories as if what is said there is the Gospel of truth. They don’t go beyond. Journalists are supposed to give stories that are balanced. In my case, even if a cop who I knew well provided me with certain information, I would make it a point to cross verify the facts.
What are your views on planted news and medianet?
Now, media is not the fourth estate anymore. I feel that the Pakistani media is more aggressive than the Indian media. In India, we are just kowtowing to the authorities; we only do those things which are allowed to us by the authorities. Our media has the freedom but doesn’t have the will. Who can muzzle the press in a democracy like India? But, the media is now dictated by completely different pressures. Most media barons today have business connections somewhere or the other.
BY UJWAL SALOKHE