‘As a crime writer, I find Mumbai safe, but the statistics disagree’ – books author interview
Puja Changoiwala is an award-winning investigative journalist whose first book, The Front Page Murders, came out in 2016. It covered a series of serial murders in Mumbai in 2012, in which Vijay Palande was accused of befriending aspiring Bollywood with the help of his wife Simrin Sood, and then allegedly robbed, murdered, and cut their corpses to pieces.
His second book, Gangster on the Run, comes out this month. It is the story of Rahul Jadhav, who left the quiet town of Dombivli, outside Mumbai, to become a hit man, operate an extortion ring via Skype, and become one of the most wanted gangsters of the early 1990s. 2000. Then he cleaned up, tackled his substance abuse problems and is now an ultramarathoner and addiction elimination counselor.
Both books are set in Mumbai. How do you think the city shaped Vijay, Simrin, and Rahul?
Cities offer more opportunities for crime: larger unions, flourishing black markets, more corruption and bribery, and a denser and richer population to victimize. Certainly, these factors contribute to the highest crime rates in cities.
Vijay Palande allegedly used his wife to attract his targets, who were aspiring Bollywood stars. Of course, Mumbai had a very important role to play, not only because of the thriving film industry it offered to these victims, but also because of the ambition it created in the alleged perpetrators.
Mumbai inspires millions to follow their dreams, often regardless of the cost of travel. According to investigators, Palande was an intelligent and educated man from a village in Maharashtra, who resorted to crime to fulfill his dreams. Sood, a shy girl from a small town, supposedly did it for the same reason.
Rahul Jadhav was a teenager in the early 1990s, when Dawood Ibrahim emerged as a constant in the changing landscape of the Mumbai mafia. Satellite cities like Dombivli, where Rahul grew up, were recruiting grounds for gangs. Street corners and crossroads would be full of wannabes to the underworld. One of those crossroads introduced Rahul to his underworld recruiter. Of course, Rahul had criminal intentions; but Dombivli offered access to the underworld.
Those who write about Mumbai tend to dismiss the fringes …
I did not know Dombivli, and when I entered, I saw him with the eyes of a tourist. He walked around the city for hours, lurked in its train stations, explored its markets and quiet neighborhoods. I would talk to the locals, eat at local restaurants, and read the local newspapers. Books and reports about the place filled in the remaining gaps. Knowing a new place is always exciting, especially when writing about real crimes. You know her secrets, her dark belly, even before you know it.
Do you view criminals as a product of the world in which they grew up? Would the circumstances have changed how they turned out?
The theory of social disorganization in criminology focuses on the pathology of places over the pathology of people. It states that crime occurs in disadvantaged and impoverished neighborhoods in or near cities. They are areas with greater socioeconomic inequality and where children are exposed to delinquent subcultures. I agree with this theory. However, it also has a lot to do with the inclinations of the person, their vision of the world, their notions of good and evil. Rahul Jadhav, for example, grew up in a loving and close family, and in that sense he chose to become a hitman and gangster. He actively searched for the places that would bring him closer to the underworld. That was his dream.
How has the crime scene changed since your start as a reporter in 2011?
Most of the most serious crimes that I covered when I started out involved murder of the elderly, rape, kidnapping followed by murder and trials for terrorist attacks. Fortunately, we have not had a terrorist attack in the recent past, but the rate of other crimes has increased. With sex crimes, you can attribute the increase to increased awareness resulting in more reported crimes. But murders and kidnappings cannot receive that benefit. Reporting is also more challenging now. It is more difficult to obtain information from police and state sources. The authorities are much quieter than a decade ago.
Do you see Mumbai as the comfortable and safe city for women that everyone seems to think it is?
I was born and raised in Mumbai, and as a woman who lives here, I find it safe. As a criminal journalist and writer, I have reported on hordes of cases that bear witness from another side of town. With almost 61,000 cases, Mumbai reported the third highest number of crimes among all metropolitan cities in India, in 2019. These included almost 400 rapes, more than 2,000 sexual abuse and the highest number of trafficking cases, with 401 victims. The statistics do not match my personal notion of security in this city.