A peek inside a crime don’s lair

September 1st, 2012 - 4:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Sep 1 (IANS) In a narrow, congested bylane in south Mumbai’s Saat Rasta area is the Dagdi Chawl headquarters of mafia boss Arun Gawli, sentenced to life for the 2008 murder of Shiv Sena corporator Kamlakar Jamsandekar, his first conviction in a four-decade-long career in crime in the notorious underworld of India’s commercial and entertainment capital.

Unlike the man, the chawl - local euphemism for a slum - is nondescript and easy to miss for those unfamiliar with the packed city.

On this IANS correspondent’s many visits to Dagdi Chawl, he has entered through the narrow alley. Vehicles are parked here in no particular order and scores of pavement dwellers go about their chores on the footpath. The first sight in Dagdi Chawl is a massive iron gate.

After the visitor identifies himself to suspicious and armed security personnel of Mumbai Police, a small entry gate opens up, leading into a tiny courtyard. There are rough-and-tough youth lolling around, and you cannot escape the feeling that there are scores of eyes watching your every move.

Within, young and old women wash clothes and utensils. There are those carrying out routine household chores. All the while, they discreetly watch.

Towards the right of the courtyard is the entrance to Dagdi Chawl, an old building. This is the don’s den, his residential address for nearly four decades. Or at least for all the time that Gawli is not on the run or in jail.

Dagdi Chawl comprises small, cramped tenements, each around 100 sq. feet with a tiny bathroom, with common toilets outside. There are over hundreds of thousands such chawls dotting Mumbai, and cramming entire families since generations.

As you enter the chawl building, in a small office, you are required to submit your identification, the purpose of visit, and other ‘relevant references’.

When you refer to the pater familias as Arun Gawli, you can expect to be patiently corrected: “Daddy bola” (address him as ‘Daddy’). In time, even the visitor addresses Gawli as “Daddy”, as if by habit.

Depending on your work, a couple of youngsters lead you into a narrow alley within the building with rows of tiny one-room tenements. Noisy children run around and women chat away furiously. All the while, there are youngsters keeping their eyes peeled.

Dagdi Chawl is reputed to have many hidden entries and exits, safe rooms, false walls and ceilings, but few would dare seek confirmation.

And surprise! There is a special lift inside the chawl! It is used exclusively by Gawli or distinguished guests. Policemen, as also visiting Indian and foreign media people, have access to the lift. Ordinary folk must just trudge up the dingy staircase, either two or three floors, depending on where Gawli holds his ‘durbar’, or public audience.

On a rare occasion, when Gawli was in a good mood, he took this correspondent on a guided tour of the entire premises. Gawli’s hospitality was effusive, and he plied this correspondent with soft drinks, snacks and hot beverages. The continuous supply was maintained by ruffians who seemed to appear out of nowhere.

On the third floor, the visitor is ushered into a posh living room with plush sofa sets on two sides, a thick carpet and a huge home theatre. The TV screen spans one entire wall.

At one end, there is a tiny closed verandah opening into the back of Dagdi Chawl, and possibly used as a watch-tower!

Next, the visitor is guided to Gawli’s children’s rooms. These too are well-appointed, with all facilities and luxuries, rivalling those in some of the tall skyscrapers surrounding Dagdi Chawl.

Then a quick peek into the don’s own master-bedroom, with a large bed, curtains on the tiny windows and an air-conditioner silently at work.

The next is a sprawling terrace, more than 2,000 square feet, opening into blue skies.

On the left is a heap of large black stones, “Kailash Parbat” with a small idol of Lord Shiva resting on top. A small fountain from Shiva’s head flows down, depicting the holy Ganga. The water flows all around.

Below the “Kailash Parbat” is a small, well-manicured lawn with a small temple of Lord Krishna. There are images of cows around. ‘Gawli’ means cowherd. And Lord Krishna was one too!

As the visitor marvels at the don’s lavish lifestyle, Gawli continues to chatter away, mostly in Marathi. Every once in a while, he holds out his hand, expecting you’ll join yours with his in a clap, a “De taali” gesture. Most people clap in sheer fear!

And once the conversation is done, a gang of youngsters quietly shows you the way out.

You are out again, in the safety of the main road.

(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at q.najmi@ians.in)

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