After pushing for almost 30 years it took the near-death of her partner, Ballu, for Baby to stop. Doctors gave the emaciated drug addict, now in his 60s, little chance of pulling through. A lifetime of smoking weed and injecting heroin had laid waste to Ballu’s body. Baby prayed for Ballu to survive and when he did, her desire to push Meow Meow vanished. What her customers did with her product, Baby didn’t give a toss about. But Ballu had given her a frightening reminder.

In those halcyon lawless years, Baby’s product was acknowledged as the best in the Greater Mumbai area. Users came from as far as Bhandup in the east and the town of Vasai in the north to score personally from her, always losing themselves in the maze of houses on the hill on the first trip. Like with every good dealer, the first packet was free. Once was never enough for a potential new customer. He came back to her, longing for more. Every time. After, inevitably, he went broke, Baby made him a proposition: work for me if you want to keep scoring. Most users jumped at the chance. Then too, there were no free handouts.

Baby’s peddler-addicts paid Rs 500 a pop. Baby ran a referral system, like Uber, to reward existing customers with a free gram if they brought friends along. That is how Acid and Tracksuit went from being broke students to peddlers on a sports bike.

While Baby, Ballu and Shatrughna sourced, cut and packed the product, boys like Acid and Tracksuit introduced it to circles and places Baby could not have penetrated herself. Her name became a mark of guarantee, the ISI mark for Meow Meow. One snort compelled users to make the pilgrimage to the hill, no matter the distance and the risks. Contemporaries had set up shop in other parts of the city, but none could match Baby either for her product, her dedicated set of customers or for the geographical reach of her operation.

None of them could expand beyond their own fiefs and not one of them could become for Meow Meow what Baby had: a synonym, byword and hushed code rolled into one. Baby had struck up a reliable business relationship with Samuel. There was no looking back after the all-clear from forensics. An advantage of being Baby’s exclusive supplier was gaining her trust. So much so, that in 2013, Baby loaned him Rs 5 lakh at a liberal 2.5 per cent rate of interest.

Baby had relapsed after Ballu’s recovery but that year, she decided to quit her yo-yo-ing and retire. Kalokhe wouldn’t let her. They were safe, he insisted, for as long as Meow Meow stayed in the legal grey zone. The law would take months, if not years, to catch up. “We won’t get caught,” he said. Who, after all, would suspect a cop?

Baby wasn’t convinced. Kalokhe’s greed and naivety would bring them down. She didn’t intend going back to jail. She had kept trouble at bay using all her cunning and by exercising restraint. Her partner, on the other hand, was asking her to run a stock clearance sale.

“We have to sell more while we still can,” Kalokhe said.

Baby refused. She fought back. She tried to make him see reason. In the end, she gave in to his obstinacy.

In March 2014, as Maria ordered a purge of drug peddlers, Baby and Kalokhe set out for Pune one morning in a hired car to meet with Samuel. The meet was arranged at Joshi Vadewale vada paav shop at Tathewade village on the Mumbai–Pune Highway. Baby had the driver park close to the restaurant and waited in the car while Kalokhe stood at a cigarette shop close by.

Baby and Samuel had perfected this routine over the past three years. Casual observers at Joshi Vadewale would detect nothing out of place in a woman receiving a piece of luggage at a roadside restaurant. Barely exchanging a word, Baby drove off to the bungalow where she opened the 25-kg travel bags in the privacy of her bedroom.

Their rendezvous had actually got off to a terrible start. The first two consignments were bad. Baby could tell by sight and smell that the crystals were not Meow Meow. She ordered Samuel back to Joshi Vadewale and hurled the bags back at him. Samuel was forced to dump 40 kg of contraband into a river.

This morning, like always, Samuel made his way to Pune and arranged for Padaiyatchi to pick him up in a Tata Indica car a few kilometres away from Tathewade. Two travel bags sat in the trunk. Padaiyatchi was accompanied by two other men: Varun Tiwari and Nityanand Thevar, both employees of Rukhma Industries, a pharmaceuticals company in the north Maharashtra district of Jalgaon.

At Joshi Vadewale, Baby saw Samuel pull up in a car with three other men she did not recognise. The men transferred the bags to the trunk of Baby’s car and drove off. There was no time for Baby to open the bags and inspect her purchase. She hadn’t brought any money either. Samuel had asked Baby to hand over the cash to his wife in Mumbai. Once it was safe, Kalokhe joined Baby and together, they went off to the bungalow in Malavali. The same evening, they returned to Mumbai.

At a pre-arranged time, a few days later, Baby met a younger woman in a run-down restaurant outside Wadala railway station and handed her an envelope of cash. Samuel’s wife thought this was something to do with his loan. On the way home, Baby promised herself that this was the last time. But one consignment was not enough for Kalokhe. Baby fought back. But for all the effect her arguments had, she might as well have been yelling at a brick wall.

Meow Meow: The Incredible True Story of Baby Patankar

Excerpted with permission from Meow Meow: The Incredible True Story of Baby Patankar, Srinath Rao, HarperCollins.