By Samina Motlekar
I grew up in the Byculla of ’80s and ’90s, in middle-class insularity on the fringes of the gangland. Yet, I do not recognise the boys of Sacred Games. And I knew them well. They came to collect donations for Navratri and Ganpati, and they didn’t use creative expletives like the L-word.
As I binged on Sacred Games with what seems like the rest of the country – and where the most glowing tributes come from the Juhu-Versova belt – I am taken back to the world it is set in. I grew up in the Byculla of ’80s and ’90s, which rested comfortably in its middle-class insularity on the fringes of the gangland. If memory serves me right, this was largely a world of somnolence, minus the generous dollops of glamour that have been added by the very skilled storytellers of the series.
My stories of this world and its people are too quotidian, too ordinary – even though they feature an appearance from the dreaded Nagpada mafia. Still, they’re perhaps worthy of a gossip session or two, but certainly not dramatic enough for the screen.
I do not recognise the boys of Sacred Games. And I knew them well. They were the boys who came to collect donations for Navratri and Ganpati. I sat next to them watching my first films on the flickering white makeshift screens that hid the grime of our lane during the nine nights of Navratri. These were the men who ran the bidi shop where I went to buy Four Square cigarettes for my father before my mother pointed out I had grown up and put a stop to it. These were the low-level underlings who could always wrangle black market tickets to Palace Cinema where I watched Sholay goggle-eyed, ignoring the torn seats and rats that scurried by my feet.
Some of these boys were Shiv Sena, fewer of them petty gang members, and the line between the two was very thin. Now none of these boys used the creative expletives that pepper the dialogues of Sacred Games. The L-word was alien. Marathi was the dominant language and a broken Bambaiyya Hindi came second. The crackling, inventive language of Sacred Games, I think, is a legacy of the Bollywood mafia film masterfully made by the North Indian migrants who came to the city much after the said events took place. This is not a criticism – how boring would cinema be if we just stuck to the truth!
Not that life in Byculla was all boring.
I remember while I was still in school the nephew of the owner of the Udipi restaurant next to my house was shot dead. A rivalry with the Gawli gang, we were told. No, I was not traumatised. Even then, blood was part of the colour of this colourful city. The next time I went in for a dosa, I saw a garlanded portrait of a young man by the cash counter – and a malnourished cop who was nowhere close to as hardworking as Katekar, with a heavy gun leaning by his side. I doubt very much he’d have been able to lift it.
My stories of this world and its people are too quotidian, too ordinary – even though they feature an appearance from the dreaded Nagpada mafia. Image Credits: Bhindi Bazaar
I hear the benign waiters by day had a nighttime avatar in which they clashed with the Gawli gang members, perhaps to avenge the killing, or to mark their territories. That might have been close to the Ganesh Gaitonde character, who lights his first fire as a waiter at a “pure veg” Hindu restaurant. But from what I saw, carom tournaments were their battles of choice.
A few gang members did lurk on top of a tank across my house with makeshift weapons, protection for the matka racket below that was part of the hard-fought turf between the groups. I always wondered as a child walking that route to school and back every day, what there was to fight over matkas – and realised much later that an unorganised betting racket was taking place right under our snooty middle-class noses. Sounds scary, but it was probably safer than a Las Vegas casino, though not as glitzy. A gaggle of schoolgirls, me included, would pass the garbage-strewn path to Gloria Convent past the matka den, and the gangland boys involved in games, sacred or otherwise, would never ever bother us. In a way they were perhaps our own unpaid protection.
These boys who played carom and cards didn’t seem to have the time or money for alcohol. What they did have time for every Friday night, was a clanging banging devotional bhajan party that started around nine and went on well past midnight, and ensured sleepless nights for the neigbourhood. There was a desi daru outlet somewhere in the vicinity of the matka house, and no doubt the boys imbibed as they crashed the cymbals and wailed tunelessly their version of sacred songs. The only patron who created a ruckus, however, was the local drunk Michael, who ranted many nights about an unfaithful wife and ungrateful daughter. Or was it the other way around?
Memory fails me. I have not thought of these men, who kept me awake so many nights, for a while now.
My family had a passing acquaintance with the Nagpada mafia – the same area that gave us Dawood and Chhota Shakeel. They were nowhere close to intimidating, just pesky community folk to be avoided by those who had graduated to the next level: doctors and engineers who had discarded the colloquial Konkani dialect for the refined Urdu or sophisticated English.
The only patron who created a ruckus, however, was the local drunk Michael, who ranted many nights about an unfaithful wife and ungrateful daughter.
I remember one of the women from the first family of mafiadom angling for an invitation to an aunt’s wedding, and relatives running helter skelter from her hiding wedding invites. A film was subsequently made about her, but for the life of me I can’t imagine what drama there was in the life of this slightly portly pan-chewing housewife. I very much doubt that she, like Gaitonde’s wife, egged on the men to take revenge. This was not a generation of men that listened to their women, and were quite capable of violence on their own. The box of bangles supposedly received by Dawood Ibrahim exhorting him to retaliate is perhaps just another urban legend invented by Bollywood. But what a compelling legend it is, full of drama and emotion, the stuff of cinema.
Real-life dons have comparatively less drama. Gawli lived in Dagdi Chawl on the other side of the tracks, a slight man, who hardly ever stepped out of the stone fortress outside which bare-bodied boys played carrom. When Daddy, as he was called, got his daughter married, he invited every resident of the area. The wedding invitation was a poster stuck outside our house exhorting residents to grace the ceremony at the Turf Club. One poster per building was comparatively cheaper than an individual card no doubt, but notoriously difficult to scrape off the wall after. No one I knew went, though an invitation to a lavish wedding at one of the poshest venues of the city did warm a lot of hearts.
The most dangerous person I knew of was the local Shiv Sena corporator with a fetish for guns and a penchant for shooting bullets in the air to show off. I met him many years later in a social setting. He was gentrified by then, about as gentrified as a Byculla hoodlum can be. I was assured by friends that he was not really a bad guy. But my middle-class judgmental morality refused to recognise this, and from then on, I refused to be part of any occasion he was likely to be at. He died subsequently, luckily for him, not by the gun he loved so much. Perhaps my friends were right. His gun could not cause as much damage as the words of present day politicians do, or as the actions of the Machiavellian home minister of Sacred Games did.
The most dangerous person I knew of was the local Shiv Sena corporator with a fetish for guns and a penchant for shooting bullets in the air to show off. Image Credits: Netflix
Until a few years ago, I’d have refused to acknowledge my murky origins in this slightly shabby neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks, pretending that I had emerged fully formed in the fashionable western suburbs. Now my erstwhile neigbourhood is on Netflix, and suddenly what was once a deprived middle-class childhood has become life experience. Yes Sacred Games may not be all true to life, but my early life now seems infinitely more glamorous thanks to it.
My family has moved from the area, matka is no longer lucrative in the era of sports betting, Gawli is a semi-respected politician, and most gangsters are either dead, abroad, or in the nearby Arthur Road jail. The once single-storey tenements are metamorphosing into high-rises and gated communities more secure than Dagdi Chawl.
I still go back sometimes, for a dosa and tomato omelette at the Udipi Hotel, which I still can’t call a restaurant. The garlanded photo is long gone, and the gangland killing is probably just a fleeting memory in minds like mine. The shops across the road that burnt down in the riots, the audio cassettes popping like bullets, traumatising us for three nights were never rebuilt.
So much of the city that was once Bombay is gone. Some version survives on screen, some in our collective memories. None of it is the truth though, because Bombay is much more than verisimilitude. Bombay is an idea, a fuzzy grey one in a black-and-white world. We now live in Mumbai.
The article was originally published in Arre.
Samina Motlekar is a Bombay based writer and filmmaker.