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Dongri to Dubai – S. Hussain Zaidi

I wouldn’t have read this book if it weren’t a book club pick. Not a great way to begin a post, but it’s the truth and that’s as good a place to start as any! It isn’t that the subject was uninteresting, just that after I finished I felt a little cheated.

book--dongri-to-dubaiLet me explain. Dongri to Dubai is a treatise of sorts on the post-Independence evolution of the Mumbai Mafia in general and Dawood Ibrahim in particular. Authored by S. Hussain Zaidi, an experienced journalist and crime reporter, it is based on several interviews with gangsters and policemen alike and documentation from the involved agencies, including a telephonic interview with the Big D himself, apparently the last time he spoke to a member of the press directly. And yet, while I do not doubt its authenticity, I found little within the pages to excite me, to fire my imagination – you know what I mean? As a journalist, I expected him to give us deeper insight into the gritty lives and motivations behind the often glamorous faces of key gangsters like Haji Mastan and Dawood. Who better than him to cut these larger-than-life characters to size; to take us into their lives and to show us intimately how they lived, loved, killed and died? Instead of gritty prose and sharp editing (this book could do with a re-edit in my opinion), it read like a rambling documentary that was strangely lacking in depth, pace and most importantly author opinion. The latter really got my goat – how does a man who has spent 6 years of his life researching and writing this book, manage to seem so aloof & unaffected?! I read in vain for his personal opinion on events and the utterly impersonal tone of the book brought me face to face with the reason why I avoid most non-fiction like the plague! Perhaps I’m being too harsh but I really do think that’s what made this book unexciting and ultimately uninteresting for me :(. I understand that his journalistic background is what must have prevented him from getting up close and personal with his characters, much like medical training does for us doctors – it attempts to keep us objective and rational. And while it may work in a news report, when I’m reading a book from an expert of sorts in the field, I want more, I expect more.

As a well read Indian citizen, I already knew most of what was in the book – not dates and names, nor exact times and modus operandi obviously – but certainly the major shootouts and killings were extensively covered in the media and the book did serve as a refresher course of sorts coz I’d forgotten many details. I enjoyed reading about the smaller characters – Manya Surve, Samad Khan, Amirzada, Karim Lala and their ilk – people I hadn’t heard of but were pretty crucial in the roles they played. I also enjoyed reading about the Gawli gang although again, not enough details here to whet my curious appetite. Varadarajan was another character that I enjoyed reading about. There are too many characters however, as are wont to be when we’re talking 6 decades, and I don’t think I’m going to remember any of them for any length of time because of this book, if you get my meaning. I do feel however that for those who know nothing of the Mumbai Mafia and the D Gang, this is probably as good an introduction as any. Although I wish the author had utilized Bombay more effectively as a backdrop – he fails to capture her multi-layered, multi-ethnic chaos. Bombay is a city that is very much alive – it seethes with the lives, ambitions and passions of its millions of denizens, all struggling to fulfil their dreams and destinies. I feel Zaidi could have done a much better job of capturing her essence, her ethos, her ‘Vibe’ as it were. A missed opportunity, in my opinion, because every gangster in the book was seduced by Bombay’s charm and her inherent appeal. She seduced them all with tantalizing visions of power and glamour and wealth while cleverly hiding the price she would invariable extract. Having lived in Bombay and felt that charm (Still do! It’s not something that ever leaves you once you’ve lived there!), I missed it in this book. I feel Shantaram (though not the same genre), did a much better job of capturing the vibrant poignancy of the seedy underbelly of Bombay.

Also missing were details on the politicians involved. Perhaps the author didn’t mean this as an exposé, but surely one can name names now after all this time? If he doesn’t I can only assume one that he doesn’t know, or that the people involved are still either in power or close to those who wield it and so are best left alone – both of which do not make for very good journalism! I would also have liked more background on the policemen involved too – their families, their motivations and their ambitions. Zaidi rarely delves into individual psyche, preferring to deal with the Mumbai Police as a whole, except in a few instances, notably Dawood’s father who was ironically a constable – an honest one no less! As I read, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that the author was playing it safe – he had decided somewhere along the line that he would just collate the facts together and present them in book form – nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps he was threatened? He doesn’t say. But my overall impression was that he skimmed the surface and left the murky depths undisturbed. I was hoping for some insight into Nadeem Saifi, allegedly involved in the Gulshan Kumar murder, but was disappointed when Zaidi had nothing new to add. I did feel the piece on Mandakini, the infamous starlet thought at one time to be Dawood’s mistress was interesting. Here at least Zaidi seemed to have tracked her down and found out what happened to her – although yet again, her alleged relationship with the Don remains what it always was – a thing of mystery! And so what started out with a lot of promise ended up becoming a rather tedious, dull and boring read – surprising and sad for a book about characters that are anything but. And surely there should have been more pictures? So yes, although in the end I did get from Dongri to Dubai, I didn’t much care for the ride!

As for Dawood Ibrahim – this book does nothing to help me understand him or his motivations better. He remains as shadowy in its pages as he does in real life. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

Rating: 2/5

And you will not believe what I have to read next…The Bridges of Madison County (also for the Book Club!)…another genre that I’m not fond of…sigh 😛 Life is tough 😉

Happy Reading People 🙂

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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Non-Booker Reviews

 

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Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

My first book of 2013!

I’m sitting here trying to think about how this book makes me feel and my mind is blank…well sort of…numbed more like, in a fugue, which when I think about it is just the kind of emotion you would expect from a book thus titled!

Narcopolis_bookcoverLet’s begin at the beginning then…the title is apt – the book is about drugs (opium primarily) & addiction in Bombay…hence the name…the narcotic underbelly of the Metropolis. So far so good, not my usual kind of read, but that’s great too, coz this year I want to step out of my box and read new authors, explore new genres (although I have no clue where this one belongs). I start with the prologue and find myself reading a single sentence that’s 7 pages long! Uh huh…I don’t notice at first but when I do – I’m intrigued and fascinated coz who’d have thought?! The prose is exceptional, as is the author’s imaginations, but as I read further the absence of a traditional storyline begins to jar and the drug-induced stupors and dreams of various characters get confusing and consequently annoying. Perhaps this is my failure as a reader more than it is the author’s as a writer? Perhaps…

The character that truly interests me, the one I want to know more of is Dimple – and when Thayil is telling her story or when she’s telling her own is when I’m truly engaged with the narrative, no matter how weird or obscure it gets.  Her voice is the one I most ‘get’, her philosophy the one I think I can ‘relate’ to, as opposed to the other characters in the story that are suitably mysterious and enigmatic, but appear shallow and irritating to me. It’s almost as if Thayil set out to write her like so, imbued with compassion, understanding and a semblance of ‘normality’, although she’s anything but, in the ways of us ‘normals’; and in doing so used up all he had, so that the other characters were left to fend for themselves and so feel somewhat one-dimensional. Well, they do to me. Even Mr. Lee who is my second favourite character is tragic and his fate seems predestined and inevitable from the moment he appears. They all do actually – every character is on a singular, inescapable path of self-destruction – some by circumstance but ultimately all by choice. It can get depressing and it does, but there’s a definite narcotic, original quality to Thayil’s prose that is addictive and that kept me reading when I wanted to quit. Here’s what I mean, “Clothes are costumes or disguises. The image has nothing to do with the truth. And what is the truth? Whatever you want it to be. Men are women and women are men. Everybody is everything.” and this passage that left me rather breathless, “The men looked at her the way they did, their eyes lingering on the freshness of her…They saw health and good nature in her roundness, and something more, a calculation, a professional distance in the eyes, a kind of premeditated shine on her teeth and skin. And some heightened awareness, a ripple of interest skimmed above the heads of the strollers on the beach and returned to her from the men.”

This is not an easy read – Booker prize nominees seldom are! It requires infinite patience and a surrender to the author’s language and the world he creates – a world that is very unfamiliar to a forty-something ‘normal’ Mom like me. If you are into plot – this isn’t for you, coz as far as I can tell, there isn’t one. It’s more like a series of events over a course of time in the lives of the characters – who are the lower dregs of society – addicts, prostitutes, pimps and drug lords – the ‘poorest of the poor’ as our politicians are so fond of saying, the ‘invisibles’ – people who live& die, while most of us ‘normals’ remain happily oblivious or should I say uncaring of their struggle. The story meanders along like the people in it, from one event to another, so that you start off with Dimple in the ‘khana’ making an opium pipe for a customer and end up listening to a famous painter (and addict of course) recite a poem at an Art Gallery or reading about how a Chinese-Muslim eunuch sailed a fleet of ships and allegedly discovered America before Columbus did. The word is surreal – this book is nothing if not surreal and while that made it interesting, it also at times got on my nerves.

But one thing’s for sure – I’m not about to forget this one anytime soon. I think it’ll make an excellent Bookclub selection because it’s the kind of book that will evoke strong & varied reactions and opinions which always make for a good, if heated discussion! As for me, every time I’m in the vicinity of Grant Road (my aunt lives close by), I’ll remember Shuklaji Street and though I know I’ll never walk there (it’s unwalkable believe you me!), I’ll be wondering about Rumi, Bengali, Salim and thinking about Dimple making a ‘pyali’ at Rashid’s khana secretly teaching herself to read, and about how far removed their lives are from the safe haven that is mine, by just the accident of birth. And about how although we populate disparate universes, we still all want the same thing – a little bit of loving to make us feel like everything’s going to be alright. And how all of us in some measure are addicts to something or the other in Life – that little hook that allows us to hold on and keep going and imagine better times.

And so I have to conclude it’s a good book coz isn’t that what a good book’s supposed to do – make you think, make you react and yeah maybe mess with your head a little? 😉 This one did all three and although I’m not going to re-read it – I understand why it was nominated, but I also understand why it lost out! As a writer I think Thayil has definite talent – he has a way with words that’s compelling. If his next book has a good plot, I will certainly read it! Read it if you like descriptive prose but are not insistent on a solid plot, and are prepared to immerse yourself in the drug infused underbelly of Bombay – keep in mind, it’s not a happy nor healthy place to be, but dangerous and deadly and it will suck you in!

So, a challenging start to my 2013! I wonder if this is an omen of what’s to follow? 😛

Coming up next – A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, a favorite!

Happy Reading People 🙂

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Booker Reviews

 

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