In those years, the Mazgaon docks, where foreign ships used to anchor, were the training ground for new entrants into the world of smuggling. Young men would buy imported watches, cigarette packets, a bottle of Scotch or a transistor radio from these ships and sell them to Marwari traders in Dongri.
Ali loaned Iqbal Rs 25 to start with. However, after a few days of work, Iqbal felt that there were more difficulties than income involved with this work. Besides, there was no guarantee that a ship would dock every morning. Sometimes there would be no ships the entire week.
He consulted Ali again. Ali offered a new option. “This work is kid stuff,” he told Iqbal. “All you have to do is to carry bottles from one place to another. You will be paid one rupee for a bottle. If you ferry five bottles, you will get five rupees, if you ferry 100 bottles, you will get hundred rupees.”
“What do the bottles contain?”
I was listening to Sufi’s account of his childhood with rapt attention. We were sitting on the terrace of his Bandra flat. “What kind of medicine?” I asked.
Before he could reply, his wife, Masooma, arrived with a glass of sherbet and a smile on her face. Several silent moments interrupted our conversation.
I had fixed one day of the week to meet Sufi. We met every Thursday and sat on easy chairs on the open terrace. Mostly he talked, while I listened and took notes. I finished the sherbet and kept the glass on the table next to us.
Sufi spoke again, replying to my question. “Medicine means ethyl alcohol, which is used to make perfume, cologne water, eau de cologne, etc. However, the underworld used it differently.”
“To make liquor, brandy in particular.”
“How old were you then?”
“I was in the sixth standard.”
I felt this incident was a turning point and so I prodded him further, “Had Eid not come in between, the direction of your life wouldn’t have changed for ever.”
“No,” Sufi hastened to correct me, “This was just an excuse. The truth was that I had to pay my school fee to be able to continue my studies. Besides, I forgot to tell you that my mother had delivered two more children after my birth. They were younger than me and Eid was important for them too.”
There was one difficulty. Those days, a hulk named Moghul used to sell a bottle of ethyl alcohol near Moghul Masjid for six rupees. He would not accept credit, and Iqbal did not have the money to buy even one bottle.
Ali solved this problem too. He took Iqbal to a Marwari shop. Ali was three years older than Iqbal. He had been in touch with this Marwari for the last four years. His guarantee secured Iqbal a loan of Rs 60 to enable him to buy six bottles at a daily interest of 10 per cent.
From there, Ali took him through a shadowy alley behind the children’s home into the dingy basement of a narrow building. Iqbal peered inside and saw a naked bulb overhead casting a pool of dim light inside.
There were more bottles than furniture in the kholi. There was only a sagging cot, a cupboard and a few clothes dangling from nails on the wall. Moghul was sitting on the cot with one leg bent at the knee, smoking a bidi.
“Chacha,” Ali said by way of introduction, “This friend of mine is good in studies and great in fighting.”
“Is that so?”
“One day he hit me so hard that he almost broke my nose.” Now Moghul felt it necessary to study Iqbal who was standing quietly in his khaki half-pants, a half-sleeved white shirt tucked into it. He had curly hair, beady eyes and sunken cheeks. His face was gaunt. His body was thin like a wire, “single pasli” (scrawny) in local parlance. He wore canvas shoes.
“Have you brought the money?” Moghul finally asked after sizing Iqbal up.
Iqbal fished out six ten-rupee notes from the pocket of his shorts and laid them before him. This was the beginning of a new career. He had Ali’s support. Ali had also given him the addresses of two liquor dens where he could sell the bottles. One was in Dongri, the other was in Mazgaon.
“Ali,” Iqbal said after putting the bottles into a bag, “Why have you passed on your lucrative job to me?”
“Because you deserve it.”
“What will you do now?”
“I’ve been thinking of giving it up!” he said with a smug smile.
“I’ve joined Mastan’s gang.”
Iqbal sold five bottles each to the two liquor dens. He earned a profit of ten rupees. He paid six rupees to the Marwari as one day’s interest. He earned Rs 4, which was his net profit. In a month, he could earn Rs 120.
He returned the principal amount to the Marwari trader the following month. He spent about twenty rupees on his younger brothers, Razzak and Firoze, who did not have proper clothes or shoes.
I interrupted Sufi here. “You were doing a job while you were in the sixth standard?”
“What were the school timings?”
“Ten to five.”
“Then when did you find time to deliver the bottles?”
“After school hours.”
Iqbal would come straight home after school. He would have tea and snacks and then go out on the pretext of playing cricket with his friends. He would then make a dash from Munda Galli to Moghul’s basement.
Moghul was quite pleased with him. This boy, who had started with ferrying ten bottles a day, was now ferrying forty bottles in two rounds. In the first round, he would deliver twenty bottles in a bag to Aziz Dilip’s liquor den in Dongri. In the second round, he would carry another twenty bottles and walk to Mazgaon. By the time he delivered these to Shankar Maratha’s den and returned home, it would be 8 pm.
By then, Iqbal’s daily income was Rs 40. But he never flaunted his money. He didn’t even let his father catch a whiff of it. However, when he got new clothes for his younger brothers for Eid, Hussain Ali got suspicious.
“Where did you get so much money?” Hussain Ali asked. “A friend of mine taught me how to sell bottles.”
“No liquor bottles?”
“Of course not.”
The talk ended there. However, when Hussain Ali came to know that his son was meeting all the other expenses of his brothers too, he was dumbfounded.
This time, he asked his wife, “Gul Banu, is it true?”
“Then it can’t be medicine.”
“Yes, it is.”
“How do you know?”
“One day, I too had some doubts. The next day, Iqbal showed me a bottle. I opened the cork and smelt it.”
“All right, I would like to smell one too.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“Are you afraid to face the truth?”
“Yes,” she said, fuming. “For the last six months you have been twiddling your thumbs at home. You are not earning a single paisa. My son is breaking his back to make ends meet, but you won’t let him live in peace. How on earth do you want me to run the house?”
Gul Banu’s last sentence carried a solid punch. It was beyond Hussain Ali’s ability to counter. Discovering that the burden of the entire household was being shouldered by his schoolgoing son, he felt a wave of sadness at his plight; he was awash with guilt.
Iqbal returned home late that evening, dog-tired, and after having his dinner, he sat down in a corner to do his homework. Gul Banu had gone downstairs to fetch water. Due to lack of pressure, the water would not reach the first floor. Almost every day, people had to go down to the municipal tap with buckets to fetch water.
Hussain Ali called his son to his bedside. He put his hand on his head lovingly, found out all that he needed to and then gave him some fatherly advice. “My dear child, there are two ways of making money: one that god approves of and the other that he doesn’t approve of. When I was at the docks, I was doing the work that god does not approve of, and till today I am paying the price for it.”
“What do I do, Papa?” Iqbal lifted his head and looked straight into Hussain Ali’s eyes. Behind that one sentence lurked a hundred hungry questions. Papa, what will happen to me? What will happen to my studies? What will happen to my brothers?
Hussain Ali did not reply. It was an answer he had yet to find himself.
Excerpted with permission from Sufi: The Invisible Man of the Underworld, Aabid Surti, Translated by Nachiketa Desai and Aabid Surti, Penguin India.