Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Review: 'Dongri to Dubai' by S. Hussain Zaidi

Should a Non-fiction book about Mafia be a factual, textbook-ish, non-judgmental piece of writing or should it have a moral lesson that paints the gory, bloody side of the criminal life & highlights the ill effects, the illegality and the moral turpitude of the mobsters ? 

In my opinion, the second option is better - but there is absolutely nothing wrong in going with the first.

What a Non-fiction book about Mafia should Not do is glorification of the criminals, the romanticization of the power that life of crime brings and to Not cater to the morbid fascination of violence, gang-war, police shootings etc. 

And doing exactly that, I believe, is inexcusable!
It is because of this, in my opinion, that Dongri to Dubai by S. Hussain Zaidi fails miserably.

It is a dizzyingly fast paced thriller-ride that chronicles the Mumbai mafia starting right from 1948 - immediately after the Indian Independence - upto 2011-2012. It covers the criminal life of about 15 to 20 infamous Mumbai mafia dons - starting from Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Varadrajan Mudaliar to Bada Rajan, Chotta Rajan, Chotta Shakeel, Abu Salem, Manya Surve, Arun Gawli, Maya Dolas and of course the big D - Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.

About 75% of the book is devoted to Dawood. His rise from a poor family with 11 siblings and a respectable cop father to a street thug - then to a Police pawn - and finally to the numero uno of Mumbai underworld. Dawood's gang wars with the Pathan gang in the 80s, the Arun Gawli & Rama Naik gang in the 90s & then after his fallout with Chotta Rajan, the subsequent feud with him. 

It is a tale of violence, backstabbing, racketeering, corruption, drug syndicates, police shootouts, police encounters, corrupt politicians, Bollywood celebrities embroiled in the crime circle & a jaw-dropping insane amount of money that finances & fuels this all!

On the purely informational & journalistic front, the book deserves straight 5/5 stars. 
How the changing political and economic landscape of the country (like the liquor prohibition, the emergency, the lifting of trade restrictions by Prime Minister PV Rao) shaped the Mumbai crime scene, how & why young people from poorer neighborhoods like Dongri would prefer taking a life threatening risk for 10,000 Rupees is explained pretty well.

You feel livid after learning about the rampant corruption in Maharashtra politicians, in country-wide politicians in fact, the many opportunities to nab Dawood gone wasted.
One of the most infuriating story in the book is that during a gang-war related shootout by Dawood's men in Mumbai's JJ Hospital, they literally used a politician's "laal-batti" ambassador to escape! The name of the politician is an open secret - but still the complex nexus of corruption & money has swept everything under the rug!

However, even an iota of glorification of crime, even a subtle hint, in a purely non-fictional book is not good. Dongri to Dubai actually goes one step further. There is a sizable portion of the book devoted to supposedly convincing the reader how Dawood had no knowledge of 1993 Mumbai blasts & how he only provided logistical support. Seriously ? Dawood Ibrahim, a person who was on Forbes's most powerful people in the World list, a list that had Obama, Dalai Lama & Steve Jobs, had no idea why he was providing logistical support to land hundreds of kgs of explosives on Konkan coast ? No sane person would buy this reasoning.

The book mentions in gory details all the gang-war related shootouts - but the innocent people who lost their lives in the process deserve no more than a mere mention. Why should I, the reader, be expected to feel sorry for the gangsters who had to flee their homes & whatever country they were currently residing in, when their rival gangsters finally caught up with their hideouts ? 

These gangsters have orchestrated such a great deal of pain & suffering on Mumbaikars, repeatedly trapping naive youth from poorer neighborhoods to take life threatening risks and after mentioning all of this in a passing, the author wastes no time in saying how genius this plan of "recruiting" new gang members was. Yes - it was a genius plan - but an 'evil, deserves-to-be-punished-by-law-evil genius' & you can't jut call it "genius" and stop there, you have to point out how it destroyed innocent lives !

Anyway, I am giving the book three stars. Thumbs up for collating 60 years' worth of history of mafia, police, shady Bollywood & corrupt politicians. But a big thumbs down for the wrong overall tone of the book.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Book Review: 'Dune' by Frank Herbert

Did I find Dune immensely entertaining - definitely yes.
Did I find its commentary on politics, faith, organized religion & symbolism to cold war political gridlock profound & thought provoking - definitely no.

Dune is an 800 pages worth of action-packed story line, intriguing, multi-dimensional characters, quite a few interesting science fiction concepts and a fair bit of symbolism.

About 20,000 years in the future when this story takes place, human civilization is a multi-layered, socio-political structure. There are royal houses vying with each other for controlling various human-habitable planets (sort of like Game of Thrones in space), there is a matriarchal group wishing to engineer human species via controlled breeding and an independent organization that has sole monopoly over space travel. All of these entities, which are always at political odds with each other are kept at bay by a central ruler/arbiter, who is called an emperor.

And then, there is the desert planet "Arrakis" or Dune! It is the sole place in the entire universe where humans have found "melange" - a special "spice" that drives light-speed space travel, limited prescience & even enhances biological processes.

If all of this sounds like a Hollywood action movie or an HBO drama on a fat budget, then that is exactly what Dune is. 
Fun, action-fueled entertainment.

However, if you go by the online reviews and dive into the book looking for a philosophical discussion about organized religion & intricacies of politics & faith, then I guarantee you that you will be disappointed as I was.
Granted that there are some thought-provoking discussions about extremism and using religion to mobilize a people, but I feel, the book tries too hard to sell itself as something it is just not.

All the obviously middle eastern sounding names, the similarity that anyone can draw between the special substance "melange" with 20th century oil crisis is sort of off-putting. And I feel, for a story which is essentially about good science fiction action-drama, all the political undertones, frankly, seem unnecessary.

All in all, a strong thumbs up with adjusted expectations.