“Mafia Queens of Mumbai” : Zaidi & Borges

Recently, I read an old book which I found quite fascinating. This was, ” Mafia Queens of Mumbai” by S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges – first published in 2011 by Tranquebar/Westland. The title itself makes those fond of crime stories- like me- reach out for the book. Zaidi is perhaps Mumbai’s best known crime reporter. He has written several books about the interesting cases he covered involving Mumbai’s underworld over the decades.

In this book the focus is not on the underworld gang lords themselves- men like Karim Lala, Haji Mastan, Varadarajan Mudaliar and Dawood Ibrahim- but about a few women who became enormously influential in the underworld, in their times. They had different social and economic backgrounds, lived in different circumstances but all of them had the grit, determination, and even ruthlessness, to become feared in the dim lit alleys and backstreets they operated in.

We read about Jenabai Chaavalwaali, who brokered a truce between warring gangs by invoking the name of religion. This probably was the start of underworld gangs owing allegiance and building empires largely on communal lines. Of Ashraf Khan aka Sapna Didi and her aim to avenge the murder of her husband; and of Mahalaxmi Papamani, the wealthiest drug baroness in Mumbai.

The authors also cover the stories of the fabled gangster’s molls? What were they like in real life? Were they as they were depicted in the Hindi movies? Perhaps the most famous-or infamous- of them was Monica Bedi, who became a Bollywood starlet before linking up with gangster Abu Salem. Other “underworld wives” we come across in the book are Asha Gawli, Neeta Naik, Sujata Nikhalje and Padma Poojary.

Overall an interesting read. It makes you realize that pretty much the same base emotions and motivations drive people, irrespective of which side of the law they are on!

“The Reluctant MD: A Gynaecologist’s Journey” : Dr Usha Mohan

Disclaimer: Writing a review of a book written by a friend is a tough one! If you praise it too much, some readers may think it was done only to boost the image of a friend. If you are too critical, there is a danger of losing a friend!! What I have said just now is true, of course, only if the reviewer declares that the author is a friend! I am cheerfully declaring that it has been a privilege for me to have known Dr Usha Mohan and her husband, Dr Mohan for over a decade.

Usha has made my job much easier by writing such an interesting and eminently readable book that it is not at all difficult to praise it. The title is intriguing : “The Reluctant MD: A Gynaecologist’s Journey”. It is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

I daresay most people have little idea of the challenges faced by a practicing gynaecologist. That you have a role in bringing someone into this world is an onerous responsibility, especially when things go wrong. That’s the time -we discover from her book- the doctor has to use all her knowledge and skills to save the lives of the mother and the child. Remember much of what she has written took place decades ago when there weren’t as many facilities as there are today. Equipment like ultrasound machines, so common place today, were a rare luxury in those days. To her credit, Dr Usha Mohan has managed to keep the medical terms and technicalities to a level that is understandable by a layman. After all, this isn’t a medical thesis.

Dr Usha Mohan’s book comes straight from the heart. Interesting, entertaining and more than anything else, honest! Her sharing of her professional experiences as a gynecologist in different parts of the world makes for absorbing reading. While all branches of medicine have their own challenges and rewards, her book describes the travails and triumphs of a gynecologist – with the richest reward being bringing a little – and sometimes a very big -one into this world. Her experiences span several continents and this is reflected in the stories of her professional life. 

Apart from medicine, Dr Usha Mohan speaks of her life long interest and competence in interior decor, painting, fashion, and fitness. Now it has been clearly established through this book- that she has skills as a writer as well!

The biggest take away from her book, for me, is her urging people to follow their passions and love what they do, as she has done over the decades. Highly recommended.

Salute to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose!

Today we remember with reverence one of India’s greatest sons on his 125th birth anniversary. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was born in Cuttack on January 23, 1897. I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that for me, and millions like me, Netaji was the most charismatic and effective Indian leader in the period from 1935-1945. What makes his story all the more fascinating is not only what he achieved when he was alive but the speculations about his death which exists even till today!

I did a quick search in this blog and I find there are numerous blog posts about Netaji. They are summarized here for the benefit of those, especially among our youth in India, who may not know much about him and would be interested in knowing more:-

  1. In “India’s Biggest Cover Up” by Anuj That, I review this extremely interesting book which talks of what actually happened to Netaji after he was supposedly killed following an air crash in the then Formosa on August 18, 1945.
  2. In “The Indian Spy” , I review a book by Mihir Bose on Bhagat Ram Talwar, who escorted Bose out of India to Kabul in the early years of World War II.
  3. In this post on “Our Super Patriotic Hindi Sir ‘, I write about Mr B L Singh, our Hindi teacher at The Lawrence School, Lovedale, who was the first person who told me and my classmates about Netaji. He instilled in us the keen interest to know more about this hero. This post also contains links to many more books about Netaji.

I guess we will never know for sure what actually happened to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. A recent article by Kingshuk Nag suggests he may have been living or imprisoned in Siberia after he went to Russia towards the end of World War II. Mr Nag is a well-known journalist who wrote a book, “ Netaji: Living Dangerously” in 2016.

Whether he died in Russia or in Formosa or in his motherland India is still uncertain. However what is most certain is that Netaji’s leadership galvanized a section of India’s youth during the crucial years when he chose to fight for freedom.

As the leader of the Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj he was the first to hoist the flag of an independent India on December 30, 1943 in the Andaman Islands, which he declared the first place to get freedom from the British.

Many were the memorable quotes attributed to Netaji but perhaps the most famous of his words were, ” It is blood alone that can pay the price of freedom. Give me blood and I will give you freedom.”

Let us today- and indeed everyday- remember with pride the man who was more responsible for the hasty retreat of the British from India in the post- World War II years than any other.

Jai Hind!!

On “Budda” aka “Birtish Bolaram” !

Our friend, Saraswati Narayan, is an excellent raconteur and writer. She provided me with the prompt to write this story. An earlier story from her had inspired me to write on Mr Gupta of “Steady Slap” fame. So this is the second round of thanks to you, Saraswati! I think you should start a blog to enable a wider audience to read your stories!

Recently, she wrote about a gardener called Shukra Mali, they had decades ago – in the 70s- in Ranchi. One could visualize him so clearly that it brought back memories of a cook we had around that time in Jhinkpani in present day Jharkhand.

I worked then in the ACC Cement Works there. Four of us bachelors had a “mess” in which the OC Kitchen was an old Gurkha of indeterminable age called Bolaram. He prided himself – especially when under the sauce, which was pretty often- on having served the British for decades. The rest of the small township simply called him, “Budda” or “Old Man” which he didn’t much care for. He would bristle and say his name was, ” Birtish Bolaram” ! He was slight of built but wiry for his age, though a little bent. Years of practice had perfected his navigation skills. Using his own GPS he found his way home, irrespective of where he went, how much he drank or when he returned.

We don’t know much of his early background, but he certainly served in the old British Indian Army until he was demobilized at the end of World War II. Apparently, some shelling had affected his hearing, possibly during the War. India gained Independence shortly after, but to him the pain of his losing the sheltered life in the Army and his hearing problems, were because of Mahatma Gandhi. This led him to often grumble that Gandhi had not got him ” Azaadi” (freedom) but ” barbaadi'( ruination) !

Since he was hard of hearing the door bell was of no use. The working arrangement made was that he used to sleep next to an open window with a stick alongside. To get him to open the door, the prescribed drill was to use that stick to gently prod him in the ribs! Usually he was alert to approaching footsteps and the stick being whisked away to prod him.

Bolaram was at his best when you told him there was a “party”. He would perk up immensely! After a few shots of rum ( he was at his best when slightly high) he would break out in his own style of English. He would turn out the best possible meal, compete with a spotless white table cloth, cutlery and the works. Decades have gone by but I still remember his cooking on his day! Especially his mutton chops!!

After one of our “parties” a colleague tried to get Bolaram drunk, not knowing that he could quite easily drink him under the table. A few shots made the young man quite excitable but for the seasoned Bolaram this was child’s play . He had served us a great dinner and he was lapping up all the praise everyone lavished on him. The young man thrust one more glass of drink in the old man’s hand. Bolaram looked at him with his hooded eyes, and drank it up in one go ! He then turned, pointing to him with utter contempt, and told us , ” Give it to him the one more peg.!”

Remembering Fr Ed McGrath SJ

Yesterday, January 7, 2021 happened to be the 98th birth anniversary of Father Edward H. McGrath SJ, one of the finest teachers and human beings I have come across. He passed away on August 4, 2017 aged 94 much to the sorrow of thousands who had been taught by him or interacted with him during his time at XLRI, Jamshedpur.

This venerable institution where I had the privilege of studying from 1972 to 1974 was started in 1949 and is now called XLRI: Xavier School of Management. He was one of the Founding Fathers of this institution. Over the decades, he became a legend in XLRI . I think it is fair to say that for many like me, McGrath was XLRI and XLRI was McGrath. More often than not when alumni reached the XLRI campus, the first thing they would do would be to seek out Fr McGrath wherever he was.

Roshan Dastur, who worked closely with Fr McGrath during his time in XLRI ; my classmate, Harriet Silva Vidyasagar, and I decided to have – in these days of Covid- a virtual meeting to remember Fr McGrath yesterday. About 20 people, largely from India and the US, took part in this Zoom meeting which went on for about one and half hours. Each speaker had something nice to say about Fr McGrath. The respect, regard and affection for him was so very evident. He was a great teacher and a perfect role model for being a coach and mentor.

His life and achievements have been chronicled many times. I don’t want to list all that he did during his decades in India. However, this article in his Alma Mater the Regis High School in New York published when he passed away, gives you a quick summary about his life.

I was searching for a picture of the last time I met him, which was long ago. My earlier blog, “People At Work and Play” came to the rescue and I found an old post dated February 5, 2007 titled ” A Pleasant Reunion “. I feel so bad that I couldn’t trace that picture of me holding his glass of beer while he signed Prof Joe Phillip’s book for me !

Decades ago, around 1976 or so, I was working in ACC Chaibasa, in the predominantly tribal belt of Jharkhand. At the office one day, our Peon , Darbari Ram, told me that a ” Gora Saheb” was asking for me. Showing surprise, Darbari whispered that this Saheb spoke Hindi fluently and instead of coming by car had come riding a motorbike! I laughed out aloud knowing it couldn’t be anyone other than Fr McGrath. So typical of him to come to enquire after one of his students as he happened to be in the area!

If you want to master managerial skills or know someone who wishes to do so, I would strongly recommend this classic by Fr McGrath, which has seen many a re-print. His good old : “ Basic Managerial Skills For All” available at Amazon and elsewhere.

I know that Father would have been pleased to see us yesterday at our Zoom meeting , remembering him. I hope he would have given us his approving trade mark, ” Theek Hai”!!

“50 Desi Super Drinks” by Lovneet Batra

Compared to the days when I was much younger, ,there is no doubt at all that people at large, even in India, have become much more conscious about health and healthy living. Everyone and his aunt spews “wisdom” about nutrition, recommended diets, healthy eating, healthy being and what have you.

In the midst of all this cacophony , Rupa have recently released a book, ” 50 Desi Super Drinks” by Lovneet Batra which is available in Kindle and Paperback versions. This easy to read book is full of information with high practical value. On reading this, you will realize that many drinks described are based on our age old traditions. You might recall some who scorned the old folk in every home when they advocated these very remedies!

Ms Batra is a qualified Nutritionist with a BS and MS in Dietetics. She was the official nutritionist to the Indian women’s teams for boxing, cycling, gymnastics and hockey in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. She has hosted and participated in many a talk show on television on nutrition and allied subjects. She founded and manages the very successful practice, ” Nutrition By Lovneet” which made her a celebrity nutritionist.

She maintains that what we drink can be more powerful in making or breaking our health than what we eat! The reason being things add up so quickly and unknowingly when we drink . She gives this example : one glass of packed fruit juice daily for a year can make you gain seven kilos, while one glass of coconut water instead can keep your high blood pressure in check.

The book has a simple yet effective design. For each of the 50 drinks covered, the author explains what that drink contains and how they can help us. This is followed by the recipe for this drink. Turmeric Milk, Jal Jeera, and Masala Chai are fairly commonly used and well-known. However there are many others which came as a surprise to me, as they well might to you!

Highly recommended, especially for those who want to maintain good health and ” sip your stress and those extra pounds away! “. This is the time of year when people make resolutions for the New Year! If yours is to look after yourself better in the next year and beyond, this book can help you do just that!

“The Bhagavad Gita For Millennials”: Bibek Debroy

Actually, I believe the title of Bibek Debroy’s book, ” The Bhagavad Gita For Millennials” (published by Rupa in 2020) is a misnomer. While it might entice the millennials to read it, I think it is apt for people of all ages. So simply and well has Debroy approached the subject which, at first, might appear to be a daunting read especially for the uninitiated. Debroy, as you may have heard, is a famous economist and translator. He happens to be the Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Council, no less!

The millennial by popular definition are those born between 1981 to 1996, so they would be between 24 to 39 years old now. While Debroy targets them as a reading audience, the book has wider meaning for those older than 40!

It is replete with information- much of which I must confess- I didn’t know myself. Starting from the shruthi texts and the smriti texts, ( such as the Mahabharata) Debroy explains just how vast the texts in Hinduism are. Some who associate the Gita exclusively with the Bhagavad Gita may be astonished to know that there are probably 58 Gitas.

The Bhagavad Gita as is well known comes from the epic- The Mahabharata. For a generation which has seen this on television in India, the book explains many nuances of how it should be read. The author argues that it is best read in Sanskrit, but for those who don’t know Sanskrit there have been many translations over the centuries. The earliest translation into English rules believed to be by Charles Wilkins way back in 1785.

Debroy also shares his research into just how ancient the Bhagavad Gita is with cogent reasoning. He also decries the tendency to quote the Gita selectively or out of context and gives a few common examples. Here scholars and layman alike have been guilty of picking a phrase or sentence and using it to justify their actions saying it is written in the Gita!

This book should not be read in a hurry. I would advice that you read it with an open and calm mind. While the explanations themselves are lucid, if you are not familiar with Sanskrit ( probably applies to most of us ) your reading speed will be constrained. It is recommended that you read both the Sanskrit original followed by the explanation in English of the shlokas.

Thank you, Mr Mohanraj!

The Old Lawrencians Association, the alumni outfit of The Lawrence School, Lovedale has initiated an interesting virtual event called the OL Assembly. I have written about this in my blog post of November 20, 2020 mainly because ” Glimpses Of A Glorious Past: An Informal History of The Lawrence School, Lovedale” – which I edited- will feature every month, at least for the next few months.

There were many interesting features in the December event but one that was very important for me was the interaction with Mr V M Mohanraj. He used to be the Librarian at Lovedale when we studied there. VMM served there for 40 years, in the process becoming as permanent a fixture in the Lovedale environment as the thousands of old books in his library. I didn’t know till recently that both of us began our association with Lovedale in the same year – 1959. I joined the Prep School as a young boy in Std 3 and he joined as the Librarian.

We had a fabulous collection of books in the Library. I am sure if many of us Lawrencians are avid readers it was because we were gently encouraged to read more by Mr Mohanraj. He instilled in us a love for books and reading which has stood the test of time. To quote Mr Mohanraj, a Librarian goes beyond being a manager of libraries. He is a guide, mentor, educator and facilitator. This is from his book, ” Mulitifacted Librarian” published in 1988. I was happy to see he has written and translated a number of books as you will see from Amazon India.

I am sure he will be pleased to know that a number of us from Lovedale have over time written and published books on a variety of subjects. Indeed, it is a happy co-incidence that I completed 10 years as a writer in November 2020. My debut novel, a psychological thriller called, ” It Can’t Be You”, was published in 2010. I am glad to see is still available in Amazon. My second thriller, ” Lucky For Some 13″ -published in 2012 -to maintain the balance- is available in Flipkart!

From an early age we were voracious readers, devouring books as fast as we could get them! This influenced us, I have no doubt, to want to write some day! I am happy that – even if it was virtually- we got a chance to interact with Mr Mohanraj, who is now in his 90s.

I think I speak for many Old Lawrencians – across the decades- who caught the reading bug early when I say, ” Thank you, Mr Mohanraj!

“Never Too Big To Fail” by Sandeep Hasurkar

Events I write about are not too far away to have faded from our memories. When the stock market in India went into a tizzy starting October 2018 after a long period of growth, analysts said the ripple had been cast by the IL & FS Story. Some of us had some information in the media about things that followed. Many may not know what the story was about.

In this context, the book I read recently gives you an accurate picture of what happened over the decades in Infrastructure and Financial Services (IL & FS), the gigantic infrastructure financing company in India. “Never Too Big To Fail” is the catchy title given by author, Sandeep Hasurkar for this book, published by Rupa in November 2020. Hasurkar has over three decades experience as an investment banker, term lender and policy adviser with leading financial institutions.

You have to read the book for yourself to understand the issues involved. It describes events that led to bankers, Government officials, industrialists and more than anyone else- the common investor being shocked one fine day to hear that such a well-known name in corporate circles had run up borrowings of Rs 91,000 crores and begun to default on re-payments. The IL & FS had grown since its inception in 1987 to become a conglomerate in their chosen space with as many as 340 subsidiary companies – which had made these borrowings! Perhaps the bankers gave willingly to these subsidiaries because of the so-called impeccable credentials of the parent company and its enviable AAA rating.

There is some repetition in the 245 page book. One area where the author could have done better, in my opinion, is to set the context for the mind-boggling figures. What exactly does Rs 91,000 crores mean, to the layman? To put things in perspective, understand this:- The per capita income in India its Rs 11, 254 per month or Rs, 1,35,000 during the year 2019-20. The median price for buying a house in a metro city is Rs 15,00,000 and in a developed rural area Rs 5,00,000. The healthcare allocation in the Union Budget for 2020-21 is Rs 67,484 crores.

For those not familiar with the terminology, in India we often use ” crores” to denote a figure of 10 million. A crore is made up of 100 lakhs ( 100,00,000). This means the borrowings mentioned in this book by IL & FS can be written as 910, 000 million or 910 billion. It tires me to write this out but if I am not mistaken that is- and hold your breath: – Rs, 910,000,000,000.

There are many lessons in this book. As a common man, I can only hope that some heed is paid to them.

Our Super Patriotic Hindi Sir

This story again dates back to my school days at The Lawrence School, Lovedale. On September 13, I had written about Mr Gupta and his “steady slap”. Today’s tale precedes Mr Gupta by quite a few years. We must have been around 10-11 years of age and we were in the Junior School. Mr B L Singh had the difficult task of trying to teach us Hindi. I must say he did his best and a more sincere teacher it would have been hard to find.

However, we were more playful at that age. Many of us were recipients of his slaps, for work not done, for dreadfully wrong answers etc. Almost 60 years have gone by since those days but I can still vividly remember his saying, ” Bewakoof Ladka, ek chaanta maarega tho ghir jayega” or words to that effect. A Google search tells me that it means, “Foolish boy! If I give you one slap you will fall down. ” We may not actually have fallen down but those slaps stung!

If he had a fault, it was that Mr Singh was super patriotic. Now, being patriotic is indeed laudable but perhaps not to the extent he was – in the context of his being a teacher. He was likely to get carried away with his stories, much to our amusement. When he was in the mood, one story would follow the other until it was too late to get much Hindi text book work done in that period.

It was easy to lead him away from the task at hand by asking him about India’s freedom Struggle, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi and the like. Often when he spoke of Netaji and the fight of his Indian National Army, his eyes would become moist. He would say one of his favourite phrases with dramatic pauses, ” Believe it or not , boys……..Ladai Huaa…..” .

On the day a Hindi Test was scheduled, Mr Singh was greeted on entering the class by the sight of two boys arguing loudly, standing chest to chest and on the verge of having a physical brawl. He broke up the fight by employing a technique most schoolmasters of his time used. He pulled them apart by holding one ear of each of the boys! When he asked what the matter was, Boy A said excitedly , ” Sir, he is saying Godse shot Gandhi because of the British”. Boy B hotly denied this . ” No Sir, he says Gandhi shot Godse.” Boy A : ” Sir, he says Netaji ran away to Germany because he was scared! ” Boy B : ” Sir, how can he say ” ran away”? You told us he went by submarine! ”

” Silence! ” roared Mr Singh. After giving them a slap each to cut short their arguments, he settled down on the edge of the table, his usual story telling position. He began with shakes of his head as if telling himself to be calm irrespective of how maddeningly ignorant these boys were.

” Boys, in January 1941………” he started off. Soon he was telling us ( though he had told us this story many times before) how Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from Calcutta, under the eyes of the British Intelligence. As the minutes went by, we sat , some like me, deeply interested in his story, others listening quite indifferently, some playing “book cricket” the immensely popular pastime of those days. Despite our varying levels of interest we were all privately happy that there would be no Hindi Test that day.

The events that Mr Singh spoke off had taken place just 20 years before that time and must have been fresh in his memory. He went on and on, assisted by some questions from an eager audience ( to keep the flow going) and was about to conclude when the bell rang signalling the end of his period. He mumbled something about the Hindi test being postponed to the next week. He then strode off, not before glaring at the errant boys who fought at the start of the class.

As soon as Mr Singh left, many boys rushed up to congratulate Boy A and Boy B the brave volunteers who had fielded a slap and a tug of their ears by Mr Singh for the greater good of the class!

You would have guessed by now that Mr Singh failed in his attempts to teach me Hindi. However, I thank him so much for instilling in me a great admiration for Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who I firmly believe was the most admirable public figure in the India of the 1940s. Those interested may like to check out this link on books about Netaji.