This is an excerpt from the non-fiction book 'Gangster on the Run' by Puja Changoiwala, published by Harper Collins India. The excerpt has been published with permission from the author.
A boy, who lost his innocence to the Mumbai mafia; a painter, who lost his art to the 9 mm pistol; a dreamer, who lost his ambition to cheap whisky; a romantic, who lost his love to dimly lit bars and brothels; and a son, who lost his ideals to hard cash – this is the story of Rahul Ramakant Jadhav – a gangster, a gunrunner, a sharpshooter, an alcoholic, a de-addiction crusader and an ultra marathoner. saga of grime and grit, it starts in one of the darkest phases of post-Independence India, when democracy was hijacked, left reeling under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Rahul was born on 11 February 1976, during the twenty-one-month state of Emergency. The historic chaos, however, hardly affected life in his sleepy, unimportant town of Dombivli, sixty kilometres northeast of Bombay. No enemies of Mrs Gandhi were being jailed here – the first prison in the district was only under construction at the time. There were no newspaper presses to have their electricity lines disconnected. No one came looking for anti-government propagandists or to impose ‘graveyard discipline’, and no one bothered with strikes, marches or riots. It was as if the world was oblivious to this city, until Rahul dragged its name to the news headlines.
Rahul’s seventy-two-year-old mother, Shalini, vouches for the accord in her city during the Emergency, when she was to deliver her third child. ‘No, they did not come after us to neuter my husband. Yes, we had easy access to public transport. No, we were not arbitrarily detained. In fact, it was a peaceful time. Buses had never been as punctual.’
Dombivli, now the biggest middle-class township in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, derives its name from its first inhabitants – the ‘Dombs’, who conduct cremation rites at funeral pyres. Although the city is now a dormitory town, which works hard to keep the country’s financial capital breathing, it was not the same in the 1970s. The wooded commune had a population of 51,108 then, as opposed to its current 1.2 million. The land was rough and rocky, water was scarce, and wolves and foxes roamed the wilderness within the metropolis.
‘As I said, peaceful,’ the arthritic septuagenarian asserts, lying with her eyes shut on the only cot in her 150-square-foot home, the same one where the underworld hitman was born.
A garlanded poster of a multi-faced Hindu god adorns one of the walls, the lone item that qualifies for the apartment’s humble decor. The paint has long lost its lustre, and the only other furniture the home boasts of is a plastic chair and a wooden stool. With a single cupboard to accommodate the family’s belongings, various parts of the living room lie strewn with heaps of human possessions – photo albums, books, clothes, toilet cleaners, cold creams and ageing iron trunks – placed artfully one above the other. A small television sits atop one of the piles, playing old Hindi songs, as if in tribute to the monochromatic life outside. ‘Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh…’
‘We’ve never owned many things,’ says Rahul. ‘It’s the first emotion I ever remember feeling – longing, pining for the littlest of things.’
When Rahul was growing up, his father, Ramakant, was employed as a quality inspector with a razor blade-manufacturing company. His monthly salary of Rs 6000 was enough to cover the family’s rent, meals and the three children’s school fees. It could not accommodate the luxuries of refrigerators, television sets or comfortable holidays. There was never enough money for new schoolbooks, and Rahul would study from hand-me-downs from his two older siblings – his sister Mangala and brother Mangesh. His clothes, too, had first belonged to Mangesh.
The children would go to a neighbour’s home to watch television. The night before they would leave for their annual hometown holiday, the brothers would carry pillows and covers to sleep on a footpath outside the bus station. They had to queue up for tickets at the break of dawn – before they were sold out. The government bus, although overcrowded and rickety, was the cheapest way to travel to their village in Ratnagiri.
Rahul was deeply disgruntled with the family’s limited means, but he noticed that his mother never complained. All she cared about was the public faucet near their building, where, armed with two buckets, she would make multiple trips every day to ensure the household never ran out of water. Shalini never asked her husband for anything extravagant, and Ramakant never denied the few wishes she expressed. When she asked for something, he’d take some time, but he’d make sure he had the desire fulfilled. Like the time she asked him for a water filter – first came a clay pot, then a steel tank, and a couple of years later, the coveted purifier.
‘Everything is borrowed in this house, Baba – everything second-hand, even my school bag and crayons,’ the boy once confronted his father. ‘This shoe rack, that suitcase, and now this teapoy. Why do you keep accepting charity from others? You work so hard, Baba. Why can’t we buy things on our own?’
The boy’s father, a tiny, soft-spoken man,who never once lost his temper with his kids, stayed quiet. He probably understood his son’s fury. He had possessed it once, too – before he realized it was a price he’d have to pay for his honest ways. The boy, however, would misunderstand his father’s silence for weakness. He did not share his humble aspirations. He questioned their finite existence, dreamed, and decided at a very young age that if he desired something, he would make sure he got it.
‘As a boy, he would love cycling,’ recollects his eighty-year-old father. ‘Because we couldn’t afford a bicycle, he would stand by our apartment window, watching other kids cycle. A few months later, he figured a way out. He offered to run errands for the boys, like buying milk and bread for their homes, or getting cereals milled at the flour mill. In exchange, they would let him ride their bicycles for an hour. He’d also save up on his daily pocket money of ten paise to rent bicycles for two rupees every few days.’
Rahul also maintained a dairy, where most of his daily musings were about the elusive two-wheeler:
I wish I had a bike; it’d be a lot easier to find the creek…
I rode my friend’s bike today, and fell in that dirty gutter near our building. So much fun…
Why can’t Baba get me a bike? All the other boys have one. I’m going to talk to Ma…
If I had my own bike, I would pedal away, I’d never come back…
Rahul’s parents had known how much he wanted a bicycle. A few years later, his father surprised him with a chocolate-coloured BSA Mach 1 bike, bringing his yearning to temporary rest.
‘And it wasn’t just any bicycle. It was a high-end racer bike, on which you’d have to crouch your torso,’ says Rahul. The innocent glee looks almost inappropriate on his hard face, as if trying to prove that the former gangster once had childlike ingenuity.
‘It’s one of the only two precious things my father ever bought me,’ he adds. The other one was a second chance at life.
The youngest of the three children, Rahul was nicknamed ‘Chotu’. When he was growing up, his tiny, papery frame came to embody the sobriquet. The boy would always be coughing and sneezing, and fighting a fever every few days. When his body temperature crossed 102° Fahrenheit, he would drift into a state of hypnagogic hallucinations.
While asleep, he would see ashes rain from the sky, and hear screams rend the hazy air. He’d see darkness with a hint of luminous white, and hear thumping sounds of gigantic feet. With every passing moment, he would sense the strides get quicker, the monster inch closer. He’d press a pillow against his head to drown out the sounds, to make the demon go away. The behemoth would remain persistent. Defenceless, the child would launch into frantic apologies.
‘I’m sorry, Thatrak. Please don’t hurt me, Thatrak. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. swear,’ he would mumble in his sleep, desperate to fend off the imaginary monster, puzzled at the origins of his name.
After he saw Dina jump to her death, Thatrak’s visits grew frequent, coaxing Rahul to let go of Dina’s memory. She was a friend who had abandoned him; a story with an anticlimax. The boy started taking to more and more habits, which kept him from friends, and the heartbreak of their sudden desertions. Always a sincere student, he immersed himself in his academics. His textbooks served a dual purpose – they got his mind off Dina, and made him believe that if he studied well, he wouldn’t have to live on the breadline like his father.Rahul was studying in a Marathi-medium school, Swami Vivekananda Vidya Mandir, Dombivli, at the time. For the next few years, he put everything he had into his schooling.
Rahul particularly enjoyed history – stories of Shivaji Maharaj and Adolf Hitler, and other warrior kings and world leaders. He relished their journeys, the way they had built empires from the ground up, and the battles they fought to protect their legacies. The boy did not bother if the men were noble or ignoble, if they’d left their mark on the world or scars. All he cared about was their magnificence and their power, their conquests and their triumphs. He, too, would do what it takes – the boy decided at an unreasonably young age – and his story, too, would outlive him.
When he wasn’t studying, Rahul would write his diary, and he’d draw pictures of animals, landscapes, gods and distinguished personalities. One of the portraits, which he had preserved for the longest time, was that of Mikhail Gorbachev, including the port wine stain on the ussian politician’s forehead. Rahul was in awe of the USSR leader, who was constantly in the news following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A peasant boy with a difficult childhood, Gorbachev joined the Communist Party as an activist, and rose to become its chief. The Soviet leader’s tale left the young boy inspired. It convinced him that he, too, could flourish. ‘With everything second-, third- or fourth-hand, I also have Mr Gorbachev’s tragic childhood!’
Despite his efforts, Rahul was always an ‘average’ student. He once complained to his dairy, ‘My neighbour’s son, he is the same age as me, he plays as much as me, but he still gets 85 per cent. That’s despite studying in an English school, while I’m stuck with this stupid 70. After every report card day, I go to his house to compare our mark sheets, and every time, return disappointed.’
Tinier than most in his classroom, Rahul would also fall prey to school bullies, who’d beat him up and snatch his kites. The boy was already disgruntled – his parents would buy him the small, five-paise kite, and not the big ‘kauwa’, which cost five times more. The bullies would rob him of that, too. After every such instance, he would rush to his mother, crying. One day, his mother slapped him.
‘Why do you run to me for rescue each time?’ she yelled, ‘Am going to come save you all your life? Go, confront them. Tell them you won’t have any more of this nonsense.’
As the boy didn’t have the nerve for a face-off, he stopped flying kites altogether, and retired to his creek – the one where he’d spend his afternoons with Dina, where he’d later test-fire his 7.65 mm pistol as he set out to terrorize his city.