An excerpt from the book Queens of Crime: True Stories of Women Criminals from India by Sushant Singh and Kulpreet Yadav.
THE DRUG QUEEN OF MUMBAI
The abusive husband pushed his wife out of the house. ‘Get out, bitch! I don’t want to see your dirty face ever again.’ He threw a bundle of clothes after her and slammed the door shut.
The woman, who was in her early twenties, picked up the bundle and started to walk away from the house, located in one of the many slums of Mumbai. She didn’t look back.
With her two young sons gripping an index finger each, the end of a loveless marriage was not what was troubling her—it was the end of the relationship. What will I do all by myself? She was worried about food and shelter for the three of them.
The woman’s name was Shantidevi Patkar. On that rainy day in 1982, as she walked in the drizzle, past vada-pav stalls and women selling jasmine garlands on the roadside, she was nobody but a faceless Mumbaikar who was poor, unwanted and worthless.
Shantidevi decided to go to Siddharth Nagar chawl in Mumbai’s Worli area. It was the first place that came to her mind as she had grown up there. As soon as she reached the chawl with her children, the familiar sights, sounds and smells greeted her and brought back traces of a smile to her face. She had lived there as a little girl before marriage pulled her away from her world, which comprised her parents and five brothers. Since she was the only sister in a family of boys, she had been pampered a lot.
Back in Siddharth Nagar, her sons on either side, she wondered which door to knock on first. Four of her five brothers were married and living in their own rooms. She decided to stay in the room of her brother who was serving time in jail for murder. Two of her other brothers had served jail sentences for the same murder, but they were out now. Another brother, who had been arrested initially but had had nothing to do with the crime, had committed suicide in jail in protest.
She knocked on the door, the awkwardness of the moment weighing her down. The door, which led to a small eight-by- eight-foot room, was opened by her brother’s wife, Sumiti.
‘Didi! What a pleasant surprise! Welcome,’ her sister-in- law greeted her and pulled the children into an embrace. She had been married for just a few months and didn’t have any children of her own.
Sumiti was quick to realize that something was amiss. After serving them tea, she said, ‘Didi, I’m with you. You don’t have to say anything.’
Her affection brought tears to Shantidevi’s eyes. ‘Thank you.’
The next morning, her sister-in-law left the house early, before Shantidevi woke up. But she had prepared a kadai full of poha for the three of them. Shantidevi woke her children up, helped them bathe outside using the bucket of water that had been kept ready for them, and then all of them ate gratefully.
That evening, Shantidevi asked her sister-in-law, ‘Can I get work here?’
Sumiti nodded. ‘I’ve already spoken to a lady in one of the apartment complexes not far from here. She will give you two hundred rupees for two hours. I’ll get you more houses to work in within a week.’
Shantidevi thanked her again. She was grateful because now she could earn her own money. It was the economic empowerment that she needed.
Soon, Shantidevi was working in three houses and was able to move into her own room in the same chawl. Now that she was earning Rs 600, she could hire a room for Rs 300. Her life was unremarkable for the next year. She was barely able to make ends meet with the meagre salary that she earned. Her husband never bothered to check if she was all right. He was so heartless, thought Shantidevi, that he didn’t even inquire about the children. The lack of money started to pinch her. But what could an uneducated woman like her do?
One day, something unexpected happened. As she was walking back home along the Worli Sea Face after work, she felt weak and decided to stop for a few minutes at a bus stop nearby to catch her breath. She sat on the metal bench, held the pillar for support and closed her eyes. It is just weakness, she thought, and will pass soon. It did, and after a minute or so when she opened her eyes, she found that a man seated at the far end of the bench was staring at her.
She was about to give him a mouthful to nip whatever he had in his mind in the bud, but the man spoke first, ‘Sister, the world can be cruel. Are you feeling better now?’
His voice calmed her down, as did the fact that he had addressed her as ‘sister’. She nodded and wondered if she should get up and be on her way.
But before she could, the man spoke again, ‘And in Mumbai, there is only one god. Do you know who that is?’
He laughed and then, his face turning serious, said, ‘No, the real god is money, cash, rupiya.’
The man was crazy, thought Shantidevi.
‘If you have the money, everything is great. But if you don’t have the money, you live the life of an insect in this city.’ A grasshopper flew out of nowhere and landed near his feet. The man raised his Kolhapuri chappal and stamped on it. ‘This guy here had no money, so I ended his life.’
She smiled for the first time. The man was right. She said, ‘But for money you need an education. Insects are uneducated.’
‘Says who? What if I told you that the man who lives on the tenth floor of this building,’ he paused and pointed towards a posh building behind them before continuing, ‘in flat number 1002, is uneducated and yet he is rich.’
‘That’s a lie.’
‘That’s not a lie, sister. I work for that man, which is why I know.’
Shantidevi got up and walked towards him. She sat on a bench three feet from him, saying, ‘How is that even possible, brother? Tell me about him.’
Little did Shantidevi know that this conversation would change her life. The man identified himself as a drug peddler and said that his boss was once a drug peddler too. But that was ten years ago. Now he was the boss and controlled a drug business that generated several crores.
‘But this is a crime. Why should I get involved in this dirty work?’
‘You wash utensils. Is that not dirty work? You clean floors. Is that not dirty work? You wash clothes. Is that not dirty work? And how much money do you make in a month doing these dirty things? One thousand?’
‘Are you out of your mind? I make only six hundred.’
‘In the dirty work that I’m talking about, you can make ten thousand in one month.’
‘But what about the police? Don’t you fear them?’
The man laughed. ‘We pay the police to look the other way.’
‘Sister, you are so naïve. Don’t you want to make more money? What you make in one year can be made in just one month.’
She kept quiet for a while, not knowing how to respond. The man got up and said, ‘I respect you. I must go now. Remember, we never had this conversation.’
‘No, wait. I see your point and I want the money, but I have two small children. If I’m caught, their future will be ruined.’
‘What future? Do you think they will have a future if they go to a municipality school?’
Shantidevi was quiet again. She knew that what the man was suggesting was something bad, something that didn’t have the sanction of God, something that was immoral. She stared out at the sea. But she soon realized that whatever name people might give to that kind of work, it would bring money.
‘I’m a woman, brother, and a woman should know her limits. A woman should never step beyond her limits. My husband used to say this.’
‘Where is your husband now?’
‘He threw me out of the house.’
‘And you still pay heed to what he said to you? Sister, you truly are strange.’
It was Shantidevi’s turn now to get to her feet. The man had said something that needed deeper thought. He had, perhaps without knowing it, offered her a perspective that was the opposite of the principles her husband used to preach. It was now between what her husband thought was right and what she thought was right.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow at the same time here. By then I will have decided.’
She walked away, her head held a notch higher, murmuring, ‘Ten thousand in one month?’
That night, Shantidevi couldn’t sleep. The numbers kept echoing in her mind along with every other word that the man had said. The next evening, he was at the bus stop.
She walked towards him, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Yes, I want to do this. Tell me what I have to do.’
‘Thank you, sister. I promise you will not regret it.’
Shantidevi started at the lowest rung. Her task was to peddle brown sugar and hashish. A daily target was set and her beat covered five-star hotels across the city. She learnt the ropes fast. There was a huge demand and she was quick to realize that the supply was barely enough to keep pace with it. Her customers trusted her more because she was a woman. She never cheated anyone, keeping the pricing as explained. Within two years, she had made enough money to buy her own small room in the chawl. Her sons were now studying in an English-medium school and her life began to change for the better.
Picture Credits: Kulpreet Yadav/Penguin Random Bookhouse/Sushant Singh
Excerpted with permission from Queens of Crime: True Stories of Women Criminals from India by Sushant Singh and Kulpreet Yadav, Penguin Random House India.