Archive | December, 2008

Dispatch from Mumbai: Of gangsters, terrorists, and film stars

28 Dec

In a country mad about movies, Mumbai represents all the dreams and nightmares of a subcontinent awakening.  Bombay, as anyone from there still calls it, is both New York and Los Angeles with banks, ports, movies, music, beaches, and the stock exchange all in one place.  It also boasts a slum of potters, Dharavi (“the biggest slum in Asia”), with a GDP of half a billion dollars and the biggest film industry (Hindi and regional languages) in the world.    


The dark side to the Bollywood Dream

            Slumdog Millionaire showed the world the staggering inequalities of an ascendant city (“Dickensesque” says every uncreative critic swooning over the new London) and the low-level dons of begging extortion.  But the real underworld celebrates with a panache that wannabe schmucks like Gotti only dreamed of: with movie stars, government ministers, and musicians. 

            The biggest stars of Indian crime?  Chotta Rajan’s gang and Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company run Bollywood finance by underwriting Hindi films with their black money.  In an industry that loses money on nine out of eleven films, the gangsters are eager to launder (and usually lose) the money they have too much of.  In return, they get to produce movies and make or break stars.  The Muslim gangs, living in exile in Karachi, Pakistan and Dubai, also get visits from the celebrities they finance at big birthday bashes and anniversaries.  They even get to sleep with the B-level female celebrities while back in India they run celebrity look-a-like prostitution rings.  Said one, “Without organized crime’s money, Bollywood would vanish overnight.”

            The mutually fascinated businesses, crime and moviemaking, also intersect with a third racket: terrorism.  No celebrity represents this better than Sanjay Dutt, son of actor Sunil Dutt (now a politician) and the Muslim actress Nargis.  Fascinated by guns and crime, Sanjay Dutt fell in with the wrong crowd as a child.  After the religious riots after the Babri Masjid’s destruction in Ayodhya in 1992, hundreds of Muslims were murdered in Bombay while the police sat and watched.   Sanjay sided with his Muslim half in the conflict.  He helped D-Company unload a car from Karachi loaded with guns and explosives.  These were then used in the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts which were (until this year) the worst terrorist attacks on Bombay.   The bomb blasts targeted hotels and the stock exchange.  Hundreds died.  Sanjay served two years in prison for participating in the conspiracy but has yet to go on trial in India’s chronically and criminally slow courts. Of course, the government got him out on bail in 2000 with the assistance of his mafia and film industry connections so he could make the hit movie Mission Kashmir.  A movie about terrorism in Kashmir, ironically. 


The story today

            Sure, but what does this have to do with the terrorist attacks last month?  It seems that the Pakistani intelligence agency (the ISI) recently instructed mafia don Dawood Ibrahim to scale back plans for his birthday celebration in Karachi to tone down his visibility.  D-Company and Pakistani intelligence are probably both involved in the terrorist attacks.  D-Company participated in the bomb blasts in the early nineties while the ISI has a long history of colluding with Islamic militants, probably bombing the Indian embassy in Afghanistan themselves this year.    

Politics, crime, terrorism, and moviemaking are all part of the same hydra in this town.  Will the latest attacks lead to a final push to end to the beast?  Given the inherent criminality of the Indian political classes, I’m afraid to expect much.     


Links – If you want to know anything about Bombay, read Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.  Half my post is from that book.

Asia Sentinel – “Pakistan’s ISI”

NPR – Interview with author of Maximum City

Dispatch from Dubai: City of Superlatives

25 Dec

It’s a cross between Bombay, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong.  Hong Kong for the crazy skyscapers, Las Vegas because of the sheer glitz-and-glamour-in-the-desert gusto they seem to put into copying the rest of the world, and Bombay because everyone is Indian (60% are South Asian, 12% non-Emirati Arabs, and only 22% Emirati). 
But Dubai, like Vegas, has had its own property bubble bust of high-end condos and offices for the world’s very richest people.  The Bahama’s knockoff Atlantis Hotel (a mere $1.5 billion project on the Jumeira Palm) opened last month and sits empty with $4 million condos selling for $3 million.  The taxi driver (Bengali, of course) tells me that 600 office towers sit empty in Dubai.  Buyer’s market y’all. 
Instead of immigrant Latino workers returning home to rural Central America, we’ve got Indians ready to return to South India where at least they can be citizens.  It’s ironic to see a nation filled with foreign laborers building projects for a few rich Arabs and Westerners imploding when the richest 1% has a bad year with collateralized-debt-obligations.  It is kind of a symbolic of the world economy, no?  Even Newsweek says it’s the end of an era.
I’d say the fat lady sang on this town, but I think the camel’s back broke first carrying her to the five-star hotel. 

Issue XXII: Race and Medicine

18 Dec

Many of you have been asking to see my essay for the Hector P. Garcia, M.D. award which won first place ($1000).   The deadline was months ago, but the award ceremony was cancelled due to Hurricane Ike.  Take a look!  

Continue reading

Odds and Ends

7 Dec

Here is a very random news roundup of articles I thought were informative but not sufficient enough to make an issue of their own.


  • Sukhetu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, has an op-ed called “Why they Hate Mumbai.”  Between the tolerance and the Bollywood dreams, he sees something for fanatics of all stripes to hate.
  • Many of you liked the “New Russia” issue I put out a few months ago.  The Economist had a special report on Russia covering all of Mother Russia’s problems.  The most fascinating ones I read include the depopulation of Russia (annual population decrease: 700,000) from moonshine vodka, among other things, and an article about the current economy of Russia which is neither communist or capitalist but every company seems to have a KGB officer on their board.  Call it the corporatist state.


  • Hillary Clinton has been nominated as Secretary of State, and loutish war criminal Henry Kissinger is pleased.  If I wanted her running our foreign policy, I’d have voted for her in March.  Salon compares Obama’s Cabinet picks of sweaty-palmed wonks and Brookings Institute centrists to FDR’s genuinely left to right-wing circle of advisers.
  • The other “Dr. Rice.”  A look into former Clinton foreign policy adviser and Brooking Instituter Susan Rice, who sat on her hands during Rwanda, but now wants military action in Darfur against Sudan.  Do we forgive or do we forget?
  • Former governor and prostitute frequenter, Eliot Spitzer, has returned to the media as a columnist for  He argues against the existence of companies “too large to fail” as a failure of true capitalism and antitrust protections.  Giant financial institutions like Citigroup, which manages $2 trillion in assets, should not exist.  Too bad Clintonite and DLC Democrats helped make and run it are still thought of as economic geniuses.


  • Kay Bailey Hutchison, our unfathomly popular senator, has started her run for governor against Rick Perry.  Kinky Friedman talks about running for governor again but says, “I sure wouldn’t do it again as an independent and I can’t afford to do it as a Republican, so I’d have to run as a Democrat…. One thing’s for sure. When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Rick Perry’s hair.”
  • And I got quoted by a news organization!  It seems that a Texas-based blogger at the Bhatany Report likened Rick Perry to Sarah Palin and Hutchison to John McCain.  How clever!
  • El Paso state Senator Shapleigh lays out the problems facing Texas in an op-ed about a dysfunctional state government with priorities out of control.
  • Dick Cheney got indicted, along with a state senator, in South Texas over private prisons on the border by nutcase lameduck DA Juan Angel Guerra (or as he calls himself “Juan Quixote” of the “barrio people”).  Sadly, the case was dismissed by a judge.  Read about previous theatrics here.