Thursday, March 08, 2007

Amar Akbar Anthony in the Mumbai Underworld

Anthony: The Spider
Anthony is the head of the gang, the Bada Bhai, the Big Brother. He started out as a trusted advisor of the notorious D*****, but weaving intricate webs of deceit, through intrigues and dissimulation, he has overthrown the old order and taken over. Anthony is a reclusive figure, usually confined to his palatial mansion overlooking the sea, where he plays endless games of chess like a Bond Villain, while simultaneously plotting the demise of his enemies, and the strategic advancement of the business. His nickname is the Spider - his invisible web covers the whole city, nothing escapes from his net, while the Spider sits in the heart of his empire, still, unmoving, alert, sensing every tremor, however faint, that disturbs his Empire. He is much feared.

The Spider is always accompanied by three men known as the Teen Bandars, or Three Monkeys. Each of the Bandars carries one of the Spider's phones, part of the process through which the Spider keeps watch over his Empire. The Spider never speaks directly on any phone. Any calls are made via the Bandars, who relay messages to the Spider, and whose orders and instructions they carry to others.

The names of the teen bandars are Gunga, Behra, and Andha. None of them are actually Gunga or Behra of course. But all three of them are Andha, or blind. Born without sight, each one of them was rescued by the Spider from the orphanages, and they are fiercely loyal to him.

The three bandars all have one special talent. Born blind, nature has compensated for the loss of one sense by granting them extraordinary powers in another. Their hearing possesses a sensitivity and discernment unknown to ordinary men. They never forget a voice they have once heard, they can identify a man by his foot step at a hundred yards, but there is something else, something even more spectacular. They can, it is whispered, know what is hidden in a man's soul from his voice. They can tell if a man has deceit in his heart, if he is hiding something, or if he is telling a lie. And there is only one consequence of being caught lying to or concealing something from the Spider.


Amar: The Black Dog
Amar doesn't have the vision or leadership qualities of the Spider. Fortunately, his job doesn't require either. Known as the Kala Kutta, or Black Dog, after his favourite Scotch whisky, Amar is more of a pit bull straining at the leash - fiercely loyal, with a lust for violence, an enforcer of the Spider's word. Amar is the Spider's jackboot on the enemy's neck. Vicious, Amar needs to continually be restrained by the Spider, who understands that violence is a tool of business, not an end in itself. Initially given a wider portfolio of work, it was realised that Amar has no talent for security (too unstable), or persuasion (too many accidental deaths) - He is only used when extreme violence is to be inflicted - torture, explosives, disproportionate retaliation. If the Spider is respected and feared, the Black Dog is feared and dreaded. In the bed-time stories of the slums of Mumbai, the Black Dog has taken the place of the Bogeyman, and even little children fall silent when their mother says - Stop crying, or the Black Dog will come and get you.

Akbar: The Munshi
Akbar the Munshi is a jovial pan-chewing accountant who once spat tobacco juice all over one of the Spider's priceless Persian carpets, and somehow lived to tell the tale. Munshi Bhai looks after the book-keeping of the business - budgets, accounts, hawala, money-laundering, bribes, payoffs, extortion, the usual financial interests of the underworld.

Munshi Bhai is well known for his earthy humour and a zest for life, which has not been reduced even by the recent attempt to assassinate him during the recent Diwali celebrations. The story has been doing the rounds of Mumbai's dancing bars and chai-shops, and it goes something like this:

Gifts of sweets are of course a Diwali tradition, and every year Munshi Bhai receives hundreds of boxes of the finest and most expensive sweets as presents, filling up his entire office. After all, the Munshi is a very senior member of the Web, everyone wants to be in his good books, and his gluttony and love for food is legendary - but more tales on that later.

The Munshi tends to prefer the traditional Desi confections, especially those made by the Old-Time Halwais. Meanwhile, the European chocolates he receives usually end up in the tummies of the beggars lining up at the mosque and temple near his office.

(Incidentally, the Spider strongly disapproves of Munshi's generosity towards beggars and other oppressed. He has told the Munshi countless times to stop giving away things to people without getting anything in return, but for the religious-minded Munshi, it is a matter of faith.)

Anyway, to return to the story. This Diwali, among the countless boxes received was one of Karachi Halwa, apparently all the way from the original Karachi sweetshop where the sweet was invented. The whole city knows that the Munshi spent his teenage years in Karachi, where many of his relatives (including his little sister with her love of Coca Cola) still live. When the Munshi saw the box of Karachi Halwa, he let out a whoop of joy. He and a dozen others present in his office that day tried the Halwa. The others started to immediately display signs of illness after eating the Halwa, and all twelve died later that night at the city's most prestigious hospital. The Munshi however only suffered a minor stomache ache. Subsequent tests by astonished doctors revealed the Halwa was laced with a lethal poison - a rare plant extract - and that the dose Munshi had taken was sufficient to kill an elephant. That he had survived was an absolute miracle. The doctors scratched their heads in bewilderment. The Munshi cried Allah u Akbar and went off to feed the town's beggars in gratitude. The Spider bit his lower lip and moved his pawn to E4.