When Naipaul met the Hindu gangs of Bombay

Updated: Aug 13, 2018, 14:01 IST | Ajith Pillai | Mumbai

Rather excited, I worked the phone and by lunch had fixed a rendezvous in the evening at a safe house in an upscale residential area near Shivaji Park in Dadar. I was supposed to meet Mr Naipaul in the lobby of the Taj

Ajith PillaiFacilitating a meeting for a celebrated writer like V.S. Naipaul with members of the Bombay mafia is not exactly a journalistic assignment. As a young reporter, I was naturally overwhelmed. I promptly called him and was told that he was researching for a book on India and I had to help by organising a meeting between him and members of the underworld. Rather excited, I worked the phone and by lunch had fixed a rendezvous in the evening at a safe house in an upscale residential area near Shivaji Park in Dadar. I was supposed to meet Mr Naipaul in the lobby of the Taj.

'Please don't come up to my room. Call me from the reception and I will come down,' he instructed me when I called him to confirm the appointment. We drove to Dadar in a non-AC taxi, which was rather uncomfortable given Bombay's high humidity levels. But Mr Naipul seemed not too concerned about the weather. The conversation drifted to what I would learn years later was Mr Naipaul's considered — some would say uncharitable — view of the Muslim community. He had concluded, or had been told, that the mafia in the city was made up of Muslims and Muslims alone. 'As a community they somehow seem to be historically more drawn towards crime than all the others,' he observed. I reckoned I was just an ordinary journalist to contradict such a great man, but I summoned the courage to tell him that one couldn't draw such sweeping conclusions and that crime knew no religion or region. Given that he equated the underworld with Muslims, it was rather ironic that the safe house I took him to was occupied by hitmen, gangsters and their friends who were all Hindus.

Mr. Naipaul was given the pride of place next to the leader of the pack — a dark, stockily built man who did not look like he was part of the mob. The man started talking about his life and all the gang wars he was currently embroiled in. However, seeing that Mr. Naipaul was not familiar with the various Companies and names of gangsters, he switched to things his gang actually did — eviction, kidnapping, extortion, contract killing and all the other things that are stock-in-trade for gangsters.

Because of some misunderstanding, Mr Naipaul kept thinking I had brought him to meet a Muslim gang. He had to hastily change his line of questioning once he realised he was actually dealing with Hindu gangsters. For a start, he enquired if there were any Muslims in the gang. He was told that there were indeed a few of them but as a gang leader he didn't trust members of that community in his team. In retrospect, I suspect the mafia man was perhaps playing to the gallery and saying things Mr Naipul wanted to hear. So, in the course of the next half hour or so, the man elaborated on how Muslim criminals were low class, unlike their Hindu counterparts who were decent middleclass folk with the benefit of a good education.

Interestingly, I had been to the safe house a few weeks before. 'Gangsters are not about religion—we have to do our dhanda and we do it for the money,' I was told then. However, the leader was obviously being circumspect now talking to Mr Naipaul and did not disclose his political or other gangland links. Among those who were hanging around the room was a well-built young man with a bandaged hand. 'I got injured in an operation — a gang fight — which is why I'm biding my time here,' he explained. Mr Naipaul was surprised to hear him speak in English and found it perplexing that he was a dropout from an engineering college in Karnataka.

Surely things were not going by Mr Naipaul's pre-supposed script. The half-a-dozen young men present in the room were not from any Muslim ghetto off Mohammad Ali Road. Many of them not only spoke English but also claimed that they had made frequent visits to England and were familiar with Regent Street, Hampstead, Hammersmith and Hyde Park, and even knew some of the night spots in Soho! (All these details, incidentally, did not figure in the book.) To be fair, Mr Naipaul heard them all out with utmost patience. He was a good listener and even studied the press clippings shown to him closely.

After well over an hour, we took our leave. On the drive back to the Taj, Mr Naipaul asked me whether the people he met were simply bragging. I said I knew that they were even deadlier than they presented themselves to be. After bidding him goodbye, I rounded off the evening at the Gokul bar, a refuge of journalists and ad men in one of lanes behind the Taj. It was an inexpensive place and if you didn't mind the heat, noise, and the Formica table tops, you could have a drink that wouldn't pinch your wallet. 'I was with V.S. Naipaul,' I told one of my copywriter friends. He initially didn't believe me. Later, perhaps to cut me to size, he offered this one liner: 'Remember, like all of us Naipaul also rearranges alphabets from A to Z in different patterns.' I knew he certainly did just that, but far better than any of us.

Excepted with permission of Hachette India from Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter's Diary by Ajith Pillai

Also Read: Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul dies at 85 

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