Geeta, Asha and Yogita Gawli at their Dagdi Chawl residence. Pic/Bipin Kokate
Asha Gawli was pregnant with her eldest daughter when her husband, Arun, was arrested in 1984 for serious offences, including extortion and attempted murder. Arun was a part of Dawood Ibrahim's gang then; Dawood was away in Dubai, and Arun was busy attending to the crime lord's dealings in Mumbai. Arun was released three-and-a-half years later from Arthur Road Jail, having missed the birth and the infancy of his daughter, Geeta. That was neither the first nor the last arrest for Arun, who has so far earned a list of monikers — a mafia don, a convicted criminal, a contract killer, a politician, and, most popularly, Daddy.
"When he was arrested, I had no clue what had happened. I was left stranded — neither here, nor there," says Asha, 48. Prettily dressed in a crocheted lace blouse and a sky blue saree, she is seated at one end of a sofa in the living room of their expansive third floor flat at Dagdi Chawl, Byculla. Though the paraphernalia of most middle-class homes is strewn about the apartment, there is the definite air of a darbar hall. Beside her are daughters, Geeta and Yogita. She continues, "This happened when I lived in Dombivli, before our marriage. I hadn't heard from him for a month. So I came to Dagdi Chawl to enquire and some boy told me that he had been arrested." Still confused, Asha took the local train back home, where, for a split second, she thought it was best to leap off it. She was stopped by a woman from her neighbourhood, who went on to assuage her fears over the next few days.
Thirty-five years of marriage to Arun and his numerous arrests have made Asha a stronger wife. She now looks forward to Ganesh Utsav festivities in early September, when Arun will be out on parole from Nagpur Central Jail. Since 2012, he has been serving a life sentence for the 2008 murder of Shiv Sena corporator Kamlakar Jamsandekar. And, it is also the parole date for which the release of Daddy, the much-anticipated film based on Arun and directed by Ashim Ahluwalia, was pushed, on Geeta's request, from July 21 to September 8.
Growing up with Daddy
"Very filmy" is how Asha puts it. She is referring to Ahluwalia's film; her life with Arun has been less "dhak-dhak", in her opinion. The gore, the violence and the murders that Ahluwalia has chosen to depict is not how she remembers it. These were tales of her husband and the gangwars that she has heard of, second-hand stories and retellings. "All that happened elsewhere, away from Dagdi Chawl. Not here," she explains.
"Ashim wanted to show multiple points of view, such as the police's. Perhaps that's why we think it looks sensational at times," says Geeta, 33. "It may be exaggerated, but the film's essence is our dad's life," counters Yogita, 28.
The family is familiar with Ahluwalia's narrative. Before the release dates were announced, the director privately screened the film for Arun, a routine that doubled-up as both to verify facts and to secure an approval. Revealing just the most permissible level of excitement over actor Arjun Rampal playing the role of Arun, the sisters say that their childhood was spent searching for their father. "Once we were about 10 or so, we started exploring what people thought about our father — how did the world see Daddy?" says Yogita.
Having studied in convent schools and leading colleges in the city, if Geeta and Yogita, and their siblings, Mahesh, Yogesh, and Asmita, ever faced the odd remark about their gangster father, then it is not a story they wish to share. They describe their childhood as "normal" and speak of their affable friendships. Surely there must have been a classmate or teacher who shuddered at the sound of their surname? Yogita dismisses it. "There were some who wondered about it and asked us; but, on the whole, no one ever made a derogatory remark," says Yogita, who runs her NGO, Kara Foundation. She adds, "Our mother didn't allow us to socialise, for she didn't think it was very safe. It was school, home, and tuitions. We weren't even allowed to play in the chawl premises."
The mother's fear was reasonably founded. Back in the day, the Gawli home was inevitably a tense environment. The house was rumoured to have had secret hideouts for Arun, to escape from police raids and threats from opposing gangs. Asha denies these rumours but confirms one — the time when the police discovered Arun hiding under a bed. "But that wasn't here. It was in the opposite chawl," she clarifies.
Standing by a window that overlooks that house, Yogita wistfully says that she wishes she could visit her ancestral village in central Madhya Pradesh. "My father's family belongs to the Yaduvanshi sect. They are known as followers of Krishna and were goatherds or cowherds," she explains. Gawli's father, Gulabrao, who had migrated to Mumbai in the 1950s in search of better fortunes, worked at the mills, while Arun, as a child, supplied milk — a job that was seen as a natural extension of his caste and his surname. Yogita hesitatingly adds, "I am not sure if they spoke Marathi earlier; they speak the language fluently now because of their association with Mumbai."
(From left) Yogita, Asha, Arun, Yogesh, Mahesh, Geeta, circa the late 1990s
In his footsteps
Among the Gawli siblings, it is Geeta who has emerged as the new face of the powerful family. Often seen wearing mirrored sunglasses these days, Geeta currently heads the civic health committee. She is a three-time corporator, contesting through Akhil Bharatiya Sena (ABS), the party that Arun founded in 1997.
Geeta debuted in politics soon after she was asked by Arun to contest in the 2007 BMC elections. "He just told me one day that I should stand for the elections through ABS. I was fresh out of college, and, having hardly socialised as a child, didn't know much," she reminisces. Her campaign strategy hinged on her father's name and warm namaskars that she had to do as she was introduced to each person.
"Perhaps I never gave much thought to what I wanted to do after college. Dad had wanted me to be a pilot for long. He asked me to enter politics and I did just that," she says. In 2008, Arun would be in police custody in the Jamsandekar case, but his influence would extend well beyond jail. Daddy's wish continued to be his family's command.
Arun is kept company by his sons as Asha serves him a meal. Pics courtesy/Geeta Gawli
Whether the film will inadvertently serve as propaganda for ABS, showing a gangster turned influential politician, or will it work against the party, by showing its dark roots with the underworld, is yet to be seen. No matter what, Geeta is certain it will be "a big hit".
The family is quick to resort to showcasing Arun as the selfless social worker, but the truth about his underworld dealings is one they cannot dismiss easily. In recent interviews, Ahluwalia has reportedly painted the dreaded don of Dagdi Chawl as "an accidental gangster". When we ask the family if Arun's ties with gangs was in fact an outcome of his financial status and the closing down of the mills in the 1980s, Asha denies it vociferously. "If money was the agenda and getting rich was the objective, then my husband would have done that by now. He wouldn't be behind bars. This had nothing to do with his financial background. He is there because he was loyal to his friends. He committed crimes for the sake of friendship," she says.
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Geeta argues that the terms "gangster" and "don" are a conjuring by the media. Contradictorily, she recognises that the days of gang-wars have come to an end. Referring to the "jungle-raaj" of the past, she says that those were the times when every area had a gang. "It was almost a profession," she smiles wryly. Eager to steer ahead with the course of politics and gain support through an electoral system, Geeta is astutely weaning the Gawli name away from the underworld and bent on forging a new association through ABS.
This is even evident from Dagdi Chawl, often described as an impenetrable fortress with a six-level security screening. These days, it's far more accessible, its silver gates open to the public. Rather than trapdoors, there is a vast room in the Gawli home dedicated to Krishna. There is even a cradle there for the child god. Dagdi Chawl gains its formidable and infamous reputation from a past and its most popular residents, but its barriers are now down.
A production still from Ashim Ahluwalia's film, Daddy, starring Arjun Rampal (in pic) as Arun Gawli
The other story
Nevertheless, the division between the Gawli home and the Gawli gang is hardly a strict one, as police and experts will testify. Far from being the docile mother, Asha is revered and feared in the community and is called Mummy, Daddy's counterpart. She has been his campaign manager, when he won the assembly elections in 2004, and also his aide in certain criminal offences. In the last 30 years, every time Arun has been arrested, Asha says she has managed to have a car follow the police, just to make sure that her husband doesn't get killed in an "encounter".
Daddy, the film, she says, plays up their romance. Born Zubeida Mujawar, she embraced Hinduism after she married Arun. Their life as newlyweds was spent in the company of Arun's henchmen and gang members; she recalls the time when Arun and she went on a pilgrimage to Jejuri and Kolhapur, with about 15 gang members in tow. "Before we got married, I used to see him in Dagdi Chawl, but we would hardly speak. It was one of those things — we knew we were in love and didn't need many words to communicate it. The movie, on the other hand, makes it more obvious," she laughs. When we ask her if she was ever frightened by the high-risk life that Arun led, she replies, "Never. There was never any fear. There is only love."
With her husband so often in jail, it meant that she was the bad cop in the family. Arun got limited time to spend with his children, and he didn't want to squander that by scolding and disciplining them.
Geeta and Yogita agree. In an attempt to discover more about the film, we ask them if their childhood features in it. Geeta, with a quick wave of her hand, says, "No, no. It is all about his life with the gangs. You can't show everything in a film." But the sisters know that a Daddy for the masses and a dad at home is too much to ask of one man and one film.
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