Mumbai was in a chaos that was unprecedented. For the first time in its history, the entire Mumbai police barring the officers went on strike asking for a salary hike. It was absolute bedlam. Since the law enforcers were absent, looters had a field day breaking into huge plate glassed storefronts and carrying away TVs fridges and the like. The BEST and the local trains had promptly suspended their services after some trains and buses had been attacked. The Army had been called in with orders to shoot at sight.
The most badly affected by the strike were the millions of office goers and other workers. With all public transport being off, there was no way they could go home. Taxis had stopped plying long back.The commuters were truly stuck. A crowd of commuters had gathered outside the hospital. They were getting restive by the minute. There would have been mayhem shortly.
Suddenly, a cavalcade of flat bed trucks lumbered to a halt outside the hospital. We could hear announcements being made on a loud hailer “Those going to Andheri get into truck number three; those going to Thane, truck number two; those going to Vashi and Panvel, get on to truck number one” and so on. We silently applauded the initiative taken by the government. In ten minutes, the trucks had left with their loads and the street was quiet again. We saw on the TV that this was repeated all over Mumbai.
It turned out that the government had made no efforts at arranging the transport. The local Don Varadarajan Mudaliar had commandeered the trucks and set up a temporary transport arrangement. His henchmen sat next to the driver of each truck armed with a “katta” prominently displayed. “Anyone stops the truck, tell them that they are Varadabhai’s property. If someone wants to act tough, you know what to do” was the advice given by the Don himself.
The Mumbai of the seventies was the “Golden Era” of various gangs lead by Haji Mastan, Karim Lala and Varadarajan Mudaliar and their ilk. Varadabhai as Mudaliar was called ran his fiefdom that included Matunga, Sion, Dharavi, Koliwada among other places. Sagas of his bravery and generosity abounded in these areas. His Ganesha pandal was the largest and most opulent in Mumbai. It had to be, after all it was financed by the ‘donations’ of the Gujarati/Marwari shopkeepers of Matunga.
Prakash and I had completed our ward rounds. We’d had a very heavy emergency call that made our evening rounds long and tiring. The mess food looked execrable. What we needed was ice cold beer and some spicy Koliwada food. We walked to the restaurant forgetting to take off our white coats. The restaurant was crowded, abuzz with conversation around. We were in a mellow mood after a bottle of beer. Suddenly there was a hush. All conversation stopped. The manager hurried to the door..
At the door stood a group of Tamilians clad in “veshtis”. In the centre of the group stood a man of middle height. He was clad in a pristine white lungi and a white shirt. His forehead was smeared with the holy ash with a large vermilion mark in the center. “Vardabhai!” simpered the manager. “Vango, Vango Saar”
Varadabhai had spotted us in our distinctive white coats. He made his way to our table regally. He pulled up a chair and sat down. He looked like any middle aged Tamilian till you looked into his eyes, those of a feral feline.
“Doctor Thambi, from Sion Hospital are you?” He inquired. We were, we told him. Surgeons in training. “You are doctors, but drinking…bad habit no?” He tch tched. We were silent. “Good, Good I was your age once and did a lot of things that you people do now a days. My son is almost your age. I tell him to sit with the Iyer children so that he can learn to be like them. I want him to become a doctor or engineer. But the stupid idiot wants to follow me. I suppose what Muruga wants will happen to my son la?” We nodded in sympathy. “Dai Thambi” he shouted to the manager. “Get some more beer for the doctors” he turned to us. “Listen, if you face any problem with anyone trying to be tough in Sion, just let me know. We will sort them out. Enjoy your food. Thambi, put their tab into my account will you?” He left as suddenly as he had appeared.
Two months’ later we were called to the trauma ward. There was a problem. A young man had been brought in dead with stabs to his chest. He was declared Dead on Arrival or DoA. His companion claimed that the doctors in the trauma ward had not looked after him. He was threatening to make life hell for the staff of the trauma ward. His threats were real as he blandished a switchblade called a ‘Rampuri’. Everyone was petrified at the madness in this man’s eyes.
Suddenly the door of the ward opened and in strode Varadabhai with his acolytes. The man who had died and his companion belonged to his gang. He went up to the man with the knife. “Munisami” he called out. “Hand over the knife to me. You are scaring all these good people” “No, No Anna, they murdered Dorai. No one saw him as he was brought here. I will finish all of them off”
We didn’t see Varadabhai’s hand flash out. He struck open palmed. Munisami staggered. The knife clattered to the floor. Varadbhai hugged Munisami who was sobbing, hushing him.
“Doctor Thambi, sorry for the trouble la. Muni is distraught as he has lost his younger brother. He wasn’t even involved in our business. He was a bright student. Don’ worry, la. We will look after Muni and the fellow who is responsible for this tragedy” The look in Varadabhai’s eyes chilled me……