Vantage point

Sunday, May 04, 2003


It had been a long day and I got down near the Western Express Highway and walked towards the place where I stayed. My stomach was giving the odd proverbial growl or two and I wondered what I should eat. It was just 5 p.m. or so and none of the street stalls were yet in business, and I did not feel like going to a restaurant after having spent the whole day in a sweaty Mumbai office.

That is when I spied his thela for the first time. He was rolling the mashed potato concoction into balls, which he would later deep fry into "wadas". The manner in which he was doing it betrayed the fact that he was a novice in the trade. His shining new thela further confirmed that he was a rookie in the wadapav business.

As I approached he gave me a warm smile and said "Give me just 2 minutes and I will have the wadapav ready". His sincerity is what struck me and I decided to linger on. A few minutes later, he served me 2 wadapavs. I took the first bite, and nodded with approval. Quite good, especially coming from a rookie. I finished the wadapavs in 3 minutes flat and paid him 7 rupees. He took my money, touched it to his head first and then put it in his cash-box. My payment had been his "bohoni".

This was the first I saw of him. A day later, I was a bit late coming home and when I neared his spot, I saw there was another wadapav-waala a few meters away. The other guy seemed to be doing rollicking business, with a big crowd of people around his cart. The rookie however stood smiling inspite of a total dearth of customers. I thought that maybe the other guy makes great wadapavs and I too took my business there. But one bite into the wadapav, I realised that the rookie's stuff was much much better. What could be the reason behind this disparity in the number of patrons then?

I did not want to follow the crowd here, so I moved to the rookie for my second wadapav. He smiled and handed me one.

"What is your name?", I asked him.

"Praveen" he said.

"Why are there no customers here?" I asked.

"You are new here, aren't you?" Praveen said.

"Yes, I am. Why?"

"You don't know the history of these parts. The people are angry with me, scared of me, I don't know what. That is why they won't come to me. But I am patient and I have faith in God. Very soon they will start coming here."

"What history?" I asked.

"I was released from jail 3 months ago. I was in there for attempted murder." he nonchalantly informed me.

I was stunned. I had read a lot about Mumbai gangsters, even seen movies made on them, but had never met one. Now here was this man, coolly telling me he had been in prison for attempted murder. I swallowed hard on my wadapav. I was wondering what to say that would not sound inappropriate. All I could come up with was


"See, you did not know, so you came here. Similarly new people will keep coming in and very soon I will have a business decent enough to make a living."

"Were you part of any....."

"Gang? Yes I was. In fact that is the reason I was caught. I was in the ..." and he told me the name of a famous gang he was a part of. "But in prison I learnt my lesson. I have a wife, and a daughter. I want them to lead a tension-free life. So I resisted offers to rejoin the gang and started this business."

"So these people don't buy wadapav from you because they are scared?"

"Some are scared. Some are repulsed by me. They don't want to give a gangster any business. I can understand actually. I don't blame them. I have made mistakes and they have a right to be suspicious. It is up to me to earn their trust."

I kept nodding all this while. After that, I paid him and left.

The next morning as I was walking towards the bus-stop, Mr. Rathi was standing there. He lived in the same building as me and had helped me about with buses before.

"Hi, I saw you eating Praveen's wadapav." he said "Don't you know his background?"

"Yes, I do, but he has served his time. He is trying to earn a decent living now."

"Hmphh, you people don't know these Mumbai criminals. They are like leopards and will never change their spots. This wadapav thing is just a front I tell you. I have seen Praveen since he was a kid. People like him can never reform. I bet he is involved in something shady right now."

I did not say anything, as my bus was approaching.

A few days later, I was coming back from work and felt like eating a wadapav. But I noticed that Praveen's thela was not there. So I was forced to eat the other mediocre wadapav. I did not think about why Praveen was not there that day...did not think at all. I must have subconsciously thought of some explanation and attributed his absence to it.

That is why I could not comprehend the excitement on Rathi's face as I passed his house. He saw me and walked towards me with a newspaper in his hand.

"See, see, I told you. A leopard never changes his spot."

I took the newspaper in my hand and read the piece he was pointing towards. It was written in the usual format -

"Praveen Dhayre, a criminal belonging to the _____ gang was killed in an encounter with the police near a bakery in Borivali today. Dhayre had been to prison before and was suspected to be behind the murder of a jeweler in Malad recently. The police got a tip off from an informer that Dhayre and a few others had planned a rendezvous near the bakery in Borivali. The police were waiting there as Dhaye arrived on a motorcycle. Policemen called out to him and told him to surrender. But Dhayre retaliated by firing at them with his gun. The police fired in self defence and wounded Dhayre. He was rushed to the KEM Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival...."