By the third glass of cutting chai, Inspector Virkar was on the verge of calling the whole operation off, but something in his gut told him that his luck was about to turn. Virkar only hoped that it was not the overly sweet tea doing the talking. He turned his attention back to the entrance of the crumbling chawl building across the chai shop where he was sitting. That afternoon, he had received information that the wanted tuition teacher-turned-khabri-turned-extortionist, Usman Teacher, would be visiting the house of one of his ex-students at the BDD Chawls in Worli. Virkar had quickly gathered a team and by evening he had spread the plainclothes policemen in the vicinity of Chawl tenement no. 32, where Usman Teacher was expected to arrive at around 7 p.m.
It was now 9 p.m. and Virkar still hadn’t caught sight of the wily Usman. Virkar’s eyes scanned each passer-by, trying to match their faces to the police photograph he had committed to memory. His searching eyes settled for a moment on the flashing signboard of the Lovedale Bar and Lunch Home at the corner of the street. Customers were already flowing steadily into the bar in pursuit of their evening tipple. For a moment, Virkar wondered whether the Lovedale Bar served his favourite Godfather Beer. His slid his wet tongue over his lips in an involuntary reaction to the thought. Realizing that he was losing his concentration, Virkar brushed away the thought and forced his mind to go over Usman Teacher’s history in an attempt to stay focused on his quarry.
Usman Reshim Abubaker aka Usman Teacher had had a colourful career. He began as a tuition teacher to Class X S.S.C. students in his Darukhana neighbourhood as soon as he finished his graduation from Anjuman Islam College. His first foray into the shadowy world of police informants, or khabris, started when, in response to a reward offer, he tipped off the police on the whereabouts of Gani Lala, the feared ganglord from Sewri. He had gleaned this information from Gani Lala’s school-going daughter, who took private tuitions from him. Gani put a supari on Usman’s head and Usman went underground, his career as a teacher coming to an abrupt end. Downloaded from gappaa dot org. Fortunately for him, the policemen who benefitted from the information that Usman had provided gave him protection and soon Usman Abubaker morphed into Usman Teacher, the khabri.
Gani Lala was shot in an encounter a couple of years later but Usman continued his khabri activities for the easy money it provided. He rose to become one of the biggest khabris in Mumbai, recruiting and training a small network of khabris who became his eyes and ears. But soon, he was no longer satisfied with the scraps that the policemen threw at him and decided to go into business on his own. Exploiting his position and proximity to certain senior policemen who relied on him for information, he began to threaten small traders who operated out of makeshift street-side structures in Darukhana with police action against them if they didn’t pay him a hafta. The traders coughed up the protection money without as much as a meek protest.
Emboldened by his success, Usman went a step further, threatening to implicate people with shady pasts in crimes that they were not even remotely involved in. Here, too, he had modest success, because the people he targeted knew that he was capable of causing trouble. But he finally ran foul of the police after they discovered that he had set up an elaborate scam to implicate a legitimate businessman from Pune in weapons trading activity. The businessman turned out to be innocent and Usman’s extortion business came under the harsh glare of the media. The same policemen who had once enlisted his services now looked the other way when he asked for their help. The Crime Branch was brought in and Usman Teacher was on the run again, but this time from the police. Life came full circle when a khabri who had trained under Usman tipped off the Crime Branch that Usman was to visit one of his faithful students from his tuition-teacher days at BDD Chawls to pick up some cash that he had stashed with him.
For what seemed like the hundredth time, Virkar’s eyes did a sweep of his carefully positioned plainclothes men. Impatience was getting the better of him, and he decided to let off some steam. He pressed the speed dial on his phone and a dial tone sounded in the Bluetooth device in his ear. The call was picked up after just a single ring, but before the person on the other end of the line could say anything, Virkar’s gruff voice barked, ‘I’ve been waiting for two hours now.’
‘Saheb, aaichi shapat, he left three hours ago. I’m sure he’ll be there soon,’ a man’s thin voice responded.
Virkar swallowed hard, calming himself. ‘Tell me again, what was he wearing?’
‘A blue-and-white checked bush shirt, brown polyester pants and white Nike slippers.’
‘Bhosdeekay, you didn’t tell me about the slippers!’ Virkar exploded.
‘Saheb, I told you about the white slippers,’ the man replied, his voice quivering in fear.
‘But you didn’t tell me what brand they were! How do you know, anyway?’
‘Saheb, the logo was printed on the side.’
‘Remain on standby, you dhakkan,’ Virkar spat into the phone and cut the line. Irritated at not having had the crucial piece of information earlier, Virkar turned his attention to the feet of every passer-by. No one was wearing any slippers even remotely resembling the description he had received.
It was now 9.30 p.m. and Virkar suddenly began to have a sinking feeling of disappointment. In his mind, he began readying himself to wind up the operation but the loud screaming of excited kids disturbed his thoughts. His eyes went back to the entrance of tenement no. 32. The bunch of kids who had been playing in the small open space next to the tenement’s entrance were hopping and skipping towards a group of burkha-clad women who were emerging from the tenement’s entrance. They playfully wrapped themselves around the knees of the women, who returned their affection by bending down and hugging them—all except one woman who broke away from the group and began walking towards the shops across the road. Virkar was about to turn his eyes back towards the entrance of the tenement when, by pure instinct, his eyes fell upon the burkha-clad lady’s feet that peeped out from under the black fabric. Even at a distance, Virkar could make out the bold Nike logo emblazoned across the side of the white slipper. Virkar’s brain took only a second to realize that it was Usman Teacher under the burkha, and that he had been inside tenement no. 32 for the past few hours. He had obviously walked in unnoticed because of his disguise. Virkar pulled out his walkie-talkie from under the table and shouted, ‘Burkha lady, burkha lady…walking towards the market,’ into the receiver, but saw that his team of plainclothes men looked confused. A couple of them ran towards the ladies standing around the kids outside tenement no. 32. Virkar wasted no further time and ran out of the chai shop in the direction of the burkha-clad Usman Teacher. Meanwhile, the burkha-clad women began screaming at the plainclothes men, who were pulling at their veils. A commotion soon erupted among the passers-by, some of whom had stopped to watch the odd spectacle unfolding on the street. Virkar bumped into a few of them as he ran, desperately trying to spot Usman Teacher in the crowd.
By now, chaos had completely taken over the street as the plainclothes men had pulled out their revolvers to clear the irate crowd that had gathered around them. In response to their guns, the crowd was now running helter-skelter, fearing that the police were staging an encounter. Their screams and cries rang in Virkar’s ears, and he suddenly realized that he had created an incident that had spun out of control. He took one last look around him and saw that there was no chance of him spotting Usman Teacher in the crowd. Turning around, he quickly made his way back to his harried team. He sighed to himself; instead of catching a wanted criminal, he would now be facing a departmental inquiry instead.
The street ditty, ‘Ataa maajhi vaat laagli…laagli re, laagli re!’, kept playing on loop in his mind.