Gangsters miss home – adventures in Karachi

While getting rather bored in London, I glanced through some old emails of mine and found this to friends of a trip to Karachi, in Pakistan, dated 16 May 2000. So i publish it here for the sake of amusement> it shows even when you discover almost nothing, the act of searching can be quite interesting.

It was the machine gun that rather betrayed his profession.  It was hanging from his shoulder down to his knees and he strode into my room at the Sheraton. Quite disconcertingly, he was also carrying a bouquet of roses and lilies. The note attached said: “With best wishes from Mr Shakeel”.

For those not familiar with Asian criminals, Chota Shakeel is the brother of what Indian papers like to call the “dreaded” or “notorious” gangster Dawood Ibrahim: the arch criminal master said to be in league with Pakistan intelligence in spreading all kinds of dastardly terror across the sub-continent, including hijacking a jet from Nepal and blowing up the Bombay stock exchange a few years ago and killing a large number of people.

Shakeel too has his own reputation. He is an “arch gangster and henchman”: blamed for almost every big explosion and murder in his hometown of Bombay.

Last week, I tracked down Shakeel’s people in Karachi with the help of a mobile phone number provided by the Delhi Police’s phone-tapping department. The same crew of line listeners, by following other Shakeel cronies, had exposed the involvement of Hansie Cronje, the South African cricket captain, in match-fixing. Dawood Ibrahim and Shakeel were supposed to be the Mr Bigs in the affair.

If Mr Shakeel is a gangster, then he is at least is a very friendly one. So friendly that it was difficult, once he was contacted, to refuse his generosity. His pressman, ambassador, or whoever it was that answered the phone introduced himself as “Osman”. And Osman announced: “You are our guests in Karachi. Whatever you want, we will provide. DO NOT be shy!”

As it was I was extremely shy. Osman had arrived bearing gifts: not just the flowers but two boxes, which when  opened later, contained what appeared to be gold jewellery and an expensive, if grossly tacky, watch. I tried desperately to hand these gifts back.

“No, no. Mr Shakeel would be very offended if you gave those back,” insisted Mr Osman. That was before he started offering to move me into a guest house, offered me women (“They can arrive here at our table  in minutes”), something to drink (alcohol is banned in Pakistan), or something to smoke (what could he have meant, I do not know).

Later, as my translater was trying to argue to hand back his presents. Osman told him, rather ominously, in Urdu: “Look, we have our way of showing our respect to people. And we have our way of taking up that respect.” Osman and his companion, a Gujerati who spoke little English, started laughing.

My aim had been to arrange a chat on the phone with Ibrahim Dawood. From where-ever he might be hiding. That proved difficult. But at least I could get to find out what gangsters were like.

–  “Are we the sort of Dons you expected? We are not ordinary gangsters, are we?” said Osman, a 45-year-old balding man dressed in a white shalwah-kameez and black slippers, and with rather penetrating black eyes.

One of the tallest Indians I’ve met. I protest I have not been out with that many gangsters. “I’m not sure what the average gangster is actually like,”I said.

As we sat in the Sheraton bar, sipping lime and soda,  Osman became very frank about his gang. Yes they had killed some people in Bombay recently in retaliation to Muslims that were killed by the police in ‘encounters’. “We take things very personally. You know, when they do things to our people, we have to retaliate.”

– What about the bombing of the Bombay stock exchange. Did you do that?

– Well our community was under attack in riots: our women were being raped and menfolk taken and hanged. So we did this bomb. We had to do something.

We are not terrorists, so it gave us no pleasure.

– So you regret it?

– Whatever we did, we did for the Muslims of India.

Osman stood up and took us to his car, a Saab. We were off on an air-conditioned gangsta’ tour of Karachi, a troubled city of 12 million people which also has its share of home-grown talent in this department.

On the way we passed the white fortress, complete with high wall, block houses and machine gun slits, that passes for the Karachi home of the ousted premier Benazir Bhutto. Then on to the long tree-lined avenue where police lay in wait and gunned down her brother in what is known locally as an ‘encounter’, a cross between an execution and a police identity check.

Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, has been languishing in jail for some time accused of being behind the brother’s murder by the police. Osman explained that the origin of the alleged execution was a  marital tiff between Benazir and Asif. The brother, who came to the rescue, was the unfortunate victim.

Finally, we went to one of Karachi’s biggest architectural highlights, the Masjid-e-Tooba, the Tooba mosque, which is a 90 metre diametre perfect dome with a mirror ceiling. The place was closed, so the faithful were praying outside. But Osman had little problem opening the place up and ushering us inside.. The  acoustics are incredible,  turning the tiniest whisper into an echo. It probably helped that we were the only ones inside.

Driving back, we stopped at a barbeque and I was handed a chicken tikka roll. It seemed the wrong time to discuss vegetarianism. Well, in fact, I had brought it up earlier. But the comments were ignored. “Chicket tikka is the best speciality of Karachi,” said Osman. I said it was actually the national dish of Great Britain, but he was not convinced.

Osman and his companion, were beginning to reminisce about Bombay. When we first me, Osman had denied coming from India at all. Now, he admitted to fleeing at the same times as Ibrahim and Shakeel in the late 80s, when they faced imminent arrest.

He started protesting about the climate.  “You know there is no real weather here in Karachi. It is always the same, just a bit hot and humid.

Any weather they  do have is just second hand.”. Later he added: “We do miss our cities you know, our Bombay. There it rains for four months on end. That’s real weather.”

Osman says that he,, like Shakeel and Ibrahim, would love to return if only the Indian government would cut some kind of deal on the charges they would face. “It is our home, you know, our motherland.”

The poor things are such a long way from home. A gangters’ lot is, not always, a happy one.

 

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