Sunset of the Don

Sunset of the Don
by Farzana Versey

Militancy has killed the underworld. When Dawood Ibrahim figured third in the Forbes list of most wanted fugitives, his resume hovered over nefarious activities. He had already been sucked into the blanket term ‘global terrorist’.

After Bollywood it is the underworld that made Mumbai a dream city, dreams that started with rolled joints under railway bridges, the first spurt of virgin gun blood followed by initiation into the hierarchy of henchmen, the inner circle. The chosen ones became dons. Dons have sponsored films and dons have made for some of the most interesting characters in cinema.

There was a time you could go to the mohalla and visit Karim Lala sitting in an easy chair, the power emanating more from his reported activities rather than his persona. Haji Mastan spoke in such a polished manner it was difficult to connect his words with his face, a leathery brown that often broke into a gold-cap toothed smile. It was endearing rather than menacing.

Mastan’s drawing room was completely white with large solo portraits of himself that greeted you as soon as you entered. Poor people waited for him looking at his laminated pictures; he made them wait till he had a large enough audience that would not leave his words echoing in an empty chamber. Crime was a punctuation mark. The weapons were used against rival gangsters, a few times in the court itself in the presence of the judge. As he told me in his autumn days, “If I am beaten on the head you don’t expect me to keep quiet, do you?” It was such insouciance that made these older dons messiahs for the destitute who identified with them because they were underdogs who had realised dreams. For all the smuggling of gold and narcotics, they did not lead particularly ostentatious lives. Many were teetotalers.

Dawood Ibrahim was an exception. He liked glamour; he got film stars as cheerleaders at Sharjah cricket matches, probably the first instance of privatising of the game without anyone saying it aloud. He has a lot of property, but it is overseen by a separate conclave. There is an upturning of poetic justice here for, while his men force slum-dwellers out of their tenements to make way for building complexes, it is the displaced who become willing slaves.

The Dawood legend has deliberately erased a rags-to-riches story, although his father was a head constable. Unlike the earlier dons, he did not have patience with durbars and fast-track private courts to sort out issues. The D-company worked as a corporation and was one of the most secular institutions.

Then came the bomb blasts following the riots and fall of the Babri Masjid. Dawood was said to be behind them. In an opportunist move, his trusted aide Chhota Rajan left him because his religious sentiments were hurt. Middle-class suckers fell for such fake fealty. He was labelled a Hindu hero; Dawood, a terrorist. Gone was that peculiar aura of the underworld. The Italian Mafioso that he successfully mimicked is now seen as an Osama clone.

Everybody knew who his daughter married, when and where. The intelligence guys had a nice picnic in Dubai as did the TV channels that shot the ‘scoop’ from behind trees. News is that his daughter’s Facebook profile mentions missing “Dad and mom and Junaid” from Karachi.

If he is in Clifton and remains in Pakistan, it might be the most longstanding instance of d├ętente with India. His being a fugitive seems like an inside joke when he is just a phone call away. The lines are kept deliberately static. The moment Dawood opens his mouth powerful edifices will come tumbling down.

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This was published in Express Tribune, June 15


  1. Farzana, Good article. You forget the more important question for people living in India: Who are currently part of the mumbai "establishment" that still work for Dawood? Surely he has many of that kind since he is able to run his criminal network by remote control from somewhere else in the world.

  2. Thanks, Al. Re, your query, my last sentence said it.


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