Ashraf Khan was once a regular Mumbai woman. But when her husband was murdered, she trained herself to wreak bloody vengeance. Read exclusive excerpts from a new book on female gangsters
ASHRAF KHAN had been married for five years in Mumbai — she’d grown up in a conservative family and loved the freedom that marriage to Mehmood gave her. The only problem was she wasn’t sure what he did for a living. Mehmood was shot dead with four bullets in an encounter at Santa Cruz airport while returning from Dubai; before leaving for Dubai, he’d told Ashraf it’d be his last trip. He wanted to settle matters with his boss. At her husband’s fresh grave, an old man, Usman, tells Ashraf that since Mehmood refused to do some work for Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai, the latter had orchestrated the encounter. Urging revenge, Usman directs Ashraf to a gangster called Hussain Ustara, who “knows everything about Dawood and hates him”. Ashraf approaches Ustara, who teaches her how to fire a gun in his basement firing range. In this chapter, told from Ustara’s perspective, he recounts how Ashraf reincarnates herself in the Mumbai underworld. Excerpts from the book:
AFTER TWO months of our rigorous training sessions, Ashraf had learned the art of self defence, the use of weaponry and had been confidently riding around the city on my bike.
Ashraf had changed. From salwar-kameezes, she had moved to wearing jeans and long, loose shirts. Her monosyllabic replies had also been replaced with sharp and witty remarks. I soon realised that she was a wordsmith: articulate and linguistically gifted. Also, unlike before, Ashraf was filled less with sorrow and more with the desire to get her revenge.
We had gotten quite close and it was impossible for her not to have realised my affection for her, yet she never said anything.
‘Do you want to take a ride to Marine Drive,’ I asked, adding, ‘we can talk about it there.’ She agreed.
This time, she rode while I sat pillion, and I must confess that the ride was as smooth as satin. She stopped the bike at a parking lot in Nariman Point and locked it.
Then she got off and shoved some papers from her handbag into my hands. I was still sitting on the bike.
‘You know I don’t have the patience, Ashraf.’
‘Okay… but promise me you won’t get angry,’ she said.
‘What is it about?’
‘Remember this morning I called to tell you that I won’t be in because of some legal matter?’
‘Actually my lawyer had called…’ she said a little timidly as if she had been hiding a thing or two for a long time.
‘Lawyer… what for?’
‘My petition against police inspector Emanuel Amolik is going to come up for hearing in the high court soon.’
‘What? When did you file the petition?’ I asked, surprised.
‘I’m sorry, I know I didn’t inform you about this before, but after seeking advice from a relative, I had filed a petition against Amolik in the high court last month,’ she said, sounding guilty. ‘Luckily, the case is coming up for hearing soon.’
I was baffled. It was not going to be easy for a young woman to take on a senior Crime Branch officer like Amolik. Also, for a court already clogged with so many pending cases, I wondered how her petition could actually see the light of day so soon.
‘So, what is the good news in this?’ I asked.
‘Well, this is going to make things easy for both of us from here on, won’t it?’
‘How?’ I asked, mystified.
‘See, if the court passes an order against Amolik, Dawood will be netted for his involvement, too. Then, we won’t have to go all the way to Dubai to kill him as he will be brought to the city following the court’s orders.’
Oh, God… she was so naive.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to me. I came closer to her and whispered, ‘Dawood has a chain of gambling dens, protection and extortion rackets. His money is channelled by hawala from dance bars, nightclubs, film productions, etc. Find a way to stop the flow of money from these… he is sure to feel the pinch.’
She paused for a second, trying to absorb what I’d told her. ‘Can you tell me how to go about this?’ she asked.
For the first time, I would be revealing the actual nature of my job — the dark undercurrents of what I did for a living.
Perhaps trusting her too much, I said, ‘Ashraf, I have for a long time been working as an informer only to get at Dawood. My networks feed me with information about his new businesses. I pass this on to the cops. The cops, if they succeed in doing something about it, give me a small percentage of the profits.’
Seemingly unaffected by what I had just told her, Ashraf said, ‘I am willing to do the same, if that will make life difficult for him. But first, how do I begin?’
I looked around; it was late afternoon and Marine Drive was fairly empty except for a few college students. I inched closer to her. ‘Align with his enemies. Befriend all his detractors, just like you got hold of me. They will help you’.
As of now, Arun Gawli seems to be the best way to crack down on Dawood’s business. Heard of him?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said curtly. She was uncomfortable with my proximity, I realised, so I stepped back.
‘Gawli is a big ganglord, a Hindu. He lives in Dagdi Chawl in Byculla, and Dawood and he are constantly waging war against each other.’
‘After my encounter with Gawli, I’ve realised Hindu gangsters don’t trust Muslims easily. I’ll call myself Sapna,’ said Ashraf
‘Do you know him?’ she asked.
‘No. I don’t know him personally.’
She walked towards the promenade and stood facing the sea for five minutes. I realised that she did not want to be disturbed. When she came back, I was sitting on the bike munching channa that I had bought from a hawker.
‘I am going now. I shall take a bus. Thank you once again. Khuda haafiz,’ she said and walked towards Mantralaya to take a bus from the depot. I sat for some time, by myself, thinking about how Ashraf was slowly taking over my life. After a restless half-hour, I started my bike and left for home.
The next day, Ashraf was her usual self at the training session, totally focused on the martial arts exercises we were doing. I, on the other hand, was completely distracted by her presence. I wanted to hold her, and feel her body against mine but I knew that she would not allow me to have any of her now. If ever.
Suddenly, she stopped and said, ‘I met Gawli.’
‘What did he say?’ I asked, trying not to sound flustered by how quickly she’d acted on my suggestion.
‘He listened to me patiently. However, I think he is suspicious about my being Dawood’s agent or something.
Also, he doesn’t seem to think that aligning with a woman is the safest thing.’
‘Well, at least you tried. I’m proud of you.’
She picked up a water bottle that was lying on a table, took a sip, and after a pregnant pause said, ‘But I have thought of something. It may sound foolish but I think that it is the only way forward.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘I have decided to change my name,’ she said calmly.
‘And why is that?’
‘After yesterday’s encounter with Gawli, I have realised that these Hindu gangsters don’t trust Muslim women easily.
I need to have a name that sounds more Hindu,’ she said.
I pointed out that Gawli himself had married a Muslim woman.
‘But even she has a Hindu name now,’ she retorted. ‘I met her. Her name is Asha and she is a Hindu now.’
‘So have you thought of a name?’ I asked.
‘No, not yet,’ she said, and then, after a pause, ‘It is my dream to kill Dawood. It is the only thing I think about night and day.’
‘How is that related to this?’ I asked.
‘It’s my sapna… I think I’ll call myself Sapna… dream… and Sapna, after all, is a name acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims,’ she said.
‘Not bad,’ I said, adding, ‘so from today Ashraf is Sapna.
To celebrate, we should both eat biryani.’ She laughed. I was happy for her.
From then on, Ashraf began to be called Sapna. She used this name when dealing with Hindu gangsters and the Mumbai police.
Even before I realised it, Sapna had made major inroads into the underworld. She would move around the dark streets of Mumbai well past midnight and build on contacts that I initially helped her out with. She collected details about the dance bars and gambling dens in the city, and the moment she realised that they were in some way or the other connected to the underworld or Dawood, she would tip off Crime Branch officers.
All this while, Sapna refused to reveal her identity to the cops. She preferred anonymity and would only divulge information on the phone, calling them from telephone booths across the city. She even refused to collect her rewards following the crackdown by the police.
In a few weeks, Sapna managed to close down several dens in the city. During this time, Sapna was still a regular at the training sessions but apart from asking me for information on Dawood’s activities in the city, she rarely discussed how she was going about getting things done.
However, my men, who had been keeping watch on her, told me what she was doing. One day, Rafeeq, one of my most trusted aides, told me how, following Sapna’s tip-off, the police had rounded up over forty persons. Tadipaar orders were served to around twenty of them, and several others were still in trouble. He also told me that two of Dawood’s gambling dens had been sealed by the police.
In three weeks, Sapna had managed to do what I would have never been able to do.
Vinay Bharat Ram, 75
‘Politicians make in five years what takes us three generations’
Vinay Bharat Ram, Executive Chairman of DCM, laboured under old India’s shadow even as the nation liberalised rapidly. His new memoir relates how DCM was built, destroyed and rebuilt again, interwoven with his personal story — painful childhood vignettes and the exhausting 15 years spent in reviving DCM. Sitting in his charming Delhi office with rocking chairs, he spoke to Yamini Deenadayalan about wealth, the noveau riche and five-star artists. Edited excerpts:
Why are you wistful that DCM didn’t benefit from the spoils of liberalisation?
I regret the past 15-20 years of my life when we should have marched ahead but there were constraints. When you’re hanging on the brink of bankruptcy, the risk keeps rising. It was a sense of fatigue, a sense of uncertainty about the future. When uncertainty perpetuates for years, it takes a toll.
Is the Buddenbrooks effect inevitable — business conflicting with art and how successive generations of a business family become destructive?
In a way, that’s my story, but I was the only one who seriously pursued music. I don’t think this made such a big difference. It was the blunders I made, the family pressures I should have resisted. It happens in business; you momentarily lose your sense of perspective.
Is the time for big Indian family businesses over?
I think it’s changed, but it’s not over. We have a huge family and I involved everyone in decisions. We didn’t seek exactness in our deals, unlike the corporate world. We talked and didn’t always have to call a lawyer. It was less formal.
How do you compare yourself to the new entrepreneurs?
There’s nothing I have in common with them. I admire the Ambani family a lot. Having said that, the world has become much more materialistic. Think 27-storey apartments and malls, we didn’t have that choice. To be wealthy now means to be ostentatious.
Have we lost something with this emphasis on luxury?
This generation is under so much pressure. It’s the five-star artist phenomenon — the image, the personality and dress. People can’t discern real from made up. And guidance matters. There was a Ravi Shankar because there was a Baba Allauddin Khan.
How does one remain professional but still deal with corrupt Indian politicians?
The nexus between politicians and business is the unfortunate part of the India story today. Politicians can make in five years what takes legitimate business three generations to make. But, now there is a churning process, thanks to the media and WikiLeaks. There’s the RTI and the idealistic young.
Do you really have faith in the media?
I have faith as long as they’re genuinely competing for TRPs. Editorial leadership is also very important.
Yamini Deenadayalan is Features Correspondent with Tehelka
The darling pleasures of Ranikhet
If Anuradha Roy’s girl-finds-solace-in-the-hills set-up puts you off, you’ll still delight in her descriptive powers, says Kalpish Ratna
IF YOU, like me, expect to be cheated out of the Himalayas again this summer, I recommend Anuradha Roy’s second novel instead. Its pages are crowded with the small intense pleasures of a long trek, to be recalled years later with unbearable yearning by a veined stone, a fossil, a dry leaf. The pain of that intimacy acknowledges the imponderable: we rush to embrace the wilderness and dread the terror of being embraced by it. The Folded Earthembodies this paradox: it is a joyous novel about grief.
It opens with tragedy when Maya’s husband Michael is killed in a snowstorm on a trek to Roopkund. Maya, who has understood but not shared his passion for the mountains, is left with little more than his ashes and rucksack to help her come to terms with her loss. Estranged from her family (like Michael was from his) Maya finds foothold in a small school in Ranikhet, where, on clear days, she can visualise Roopkund on the horizon.
It’s a darling fictional device, the girl with a past finding solace in a new life in the hills, alternating between good works and boredom till the author mainlines on testosterone. That made me leery. Roy’s first novel, The Atlas of Impossible Longing, was ambushed by the ghosts of classics past, and there’s always something about the wet and the wild that compels a fresh pass at Mr Rochester. But this writer has (almost) cleared the attic, and once in Ranikhet, she joyfully indulges her particular skill.
Roy is the rare author who can write descriptive prose that does not read like an inventory. The strength of this novel is its evocative language and use of closely observed descriptions of the external world to cue shifts in emotion. The narrator (with whom one empathises instantly) relates her own story through lines like these: “In the hills, the sky is circumscribed. Its fluid blue is cupped in the palm of a hand whose fingers are the mountains around us… Here is where sky begins and ends, and if there are other places, they have skies different from our sky.”
Roy is the rare author whose descriptive prose does not read like an inventory. Her descriptions of the external world cue emotional shifts in the novel
CIRCUMSCRIBED TOO is life in the small town where Roy’s compassionate understanding makes her characters come alive. Diwan Sahib, the adorably cantankerous patron around whom the novel revolves; Charu, the spirited teenager whose romance Maya lives through vicariously; Ama, Charu’s feisty grandmother, and simple Puran, to whom animals talk. The many cameos are all great fun.
The inevitable arrives in the form of Veer, Diwanji’s saturnine nephew, and professional mountaineer. The action, peripheral to begin with, now tightens as external events fold in on Maya and the trajectory of her grief is brought to a needlessly dramatic closure. But I’m not complaining, it’s been an enjoyable ramble in delightful company.