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.
Let 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.
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 🙂