For the better part of four decades, Abdul Karim Khan Sher Khan Pathan, aka Karim Lala, was the grand old daddy of Mumbai's criminal underbelly.
An imposing six-footer and attired in typical Pathani suits, Lala was the first man to give the word "don" a semblance of iconism. The charming demeanour that he carried off, belied the ruthless streak in him and lent an element of enigma to his persona.
Of course, in those days there was not so much of blood letting as it does in the present times when gangsters get trigger-happy at the drop of a hat.
Lala introduced bootlegging and gambling to the city in 1940 and was the undisputed king of the trade till 1985. The normally tranquil Mumbai shores turned topsy turvy when Lala's nephew Samad Khan was gunned down by the combined might of rival gangsters including Dawood Ibrahim.
If not an underworld boss, Lala could well have been a good PR man. He believed in making friends and sustaining relationships. Till he died, he never failed to wish me on my birthday, new year and Diwali. He maintained a database of phone numbers of important acquaintances.
My first encounter with the don was at Nagpada police station in 1983, where he was being questioned in connection with setting a stable on fire to make way for a highrise to be constructed by smuggler-turned-builder Yusuf Patel.
My request to talk to the don was turned down by the senior inspector in charge. I then used the good offices of then police commissioner Julio Rebeiro who acceeded to my plea. When I returned to the police station, I was made to enter the room secretly. I sat on a bench placed behind the wooden chair while Lala sat in front of the senior inspector. I watched as the senior cop grilled Lala.
The don had not lost his sense of authority. "This is the first time that I have been summoned to a police station. How dare you do that? I have committed no crime. Some one is trying to make me a fall guy. Give me 24 hours, I will produce the real culprits," Lala pleaded with the officer. The wooden chair he sat on made him wince with pain as was a slip disc patient.
Acting on an impulse, I urged the officer to look at his old age and offer him a cushioned seat. Surprised, Lala cast a glance at me back and muttered: "Tum jo bhi ho, Khuda ke bande ho". The officer agreed and at that point, I got talking to the Lala. That, incidentally, was the first time Lala was interviewed in a police station.
Lala's brush with the law came in 1994 again. He and his trusted lieutenant Bahadar Khan were produced in the Girgaum court for allegedly slapping a lady in connection with a property dispute. A complete ignoramus in legal matters, Lala evoked peals of laughter as he answered the magistrate's questions.
"What is your name," asked the magistrate. To the amusement of some and horror of some, the don looked at Bahadar Khan and retorted: "Who is this man in the black coat who doesn't know my name?"
Khan told Lala it was a court and the man seated on the high chair was a magistrate. He counselled his master to be polite. And then the words came out in a thunder: "Abdul Karim Khan Sher Khan Pathan."
"What's your age", was the next question. An irreprisible Lala was at it again. "Kitna umar hai hamara, Bahadar Khan? When I went to the court the first time I was 75," boomed Lala. "Are you aware that a woman has accused you of slapping her?" the magistrate put the final question.
"I have never looked straight in the eyes of a woman outside my family. This woman is a liar," shot back Lala angrily. There were no more questions and the Lala was a free bird, let off on a bail of Rs2,500.