'Meow Meow: The incredible true story of Baby Patankar' book review: A riveting roulette
An awe-inspiring crime saga that humanises Mumbai’s dreaded drug queen, Baby Patankar.
Books around true crime tend to be either regurgitated police files or wordier newspaper articles, rarely palatable. It is a delight, therefore, to discover that Meow Meow: The Incredible True Story of Baby Patankar by Srinath Rao functions as a cycle-breaker in this trend. For one, the style of writing is so erudite and precise, it seems almost casual even as it sifts through mountains of research to present the story of the spread and impact, in Mumbai, of the drug, Mephedrone—4 methyl methcathinone, M Cat or meow meow. The writing balances facts, humour and deep insights to expose the entire ecosystem within which meow meow and Baby Patankar flourished.
The bare bones feel all too familiar: real life, and what Bollywood has adequately prepped us for. The youngest of a family of eight is named Shashikala, though to them she will always be Baby,a name that spills over into lasting notoriety in India’s crime files. Life in a taxi driver’s household is rough but happy. When an older brother’s wife is molested on her way to use the open-air toilet on the sea rocks at Worli Koliwada, the brothers hack the perpetrator with sticks and sickles to be subsequently picked up to serve jail sentences. At that point, Baby works in one of the ubiquitous cotton mills. The great strike called by labour leader Datta Samant was intended to change the lives of the workers forever. Instead, the mill owners are more than happy to shut down. The prime lands they sit on have each multiplied a thousand folds in value.
Baby drifts into the sale of brown sugar, ploughing her profits back into real estate in the shanties at Worli Hill. She has learnt how to make money at the fringes of criminality and extends her largesse to her family. This is when meow meow enters her life. The popularity of this synthetic drug in the Maximum City is somewhat odd, as it did not quite take off as vigorously in other parts of the world. Way cheaper than cocaine, it serves as an antidote to the woes of making a living in Mumbai. Its use spread like wildfire, catching the law unawares to the extent that it took a while before being classified as a drug, a fact that rendered Baby’s business completely legal for a while. No meow meow in Mumbai quite reaches the quality assurance of her stock.
Having made herself enough money to retire, Baby tries to quit. Pressure on her to continue comes from an unexpected source: her police constable partner, Dharmaraj Kalokhe, who threatens to put her away in jail if she doesn’t comply. Now she must turn her entrepreneurial skills into cutting herself free from this entity by turning police informer. The stakes are high, and Baby could as easily be made the scapegoat.
The beauty of the book is in how it provides a historical sweep of the places it focuses on––Worli, in particular. The history encompasses the antecedents of the Haji Ali Mosque and the Mahalakshmi Temple, and stretches from the pre-British era through the 20th century, weaving in politics, crime, land acquisition and landmarks, including the Wankhede Stadium. How the Koli community came to be marginalised with traditional sources of income cut off is also knowledgeably traced. In all, this is a wonderful socio-political overview of the times, of Maharashtra and specifically, of Mumbai.
Both macro-overviews and microscopic analysis of the city police further enrich this work. The reader has access to the workings of the world’s most effective and elite force, including jurisdictional disputes, internal protocols, the lives and backgrounds of its personnel and day-to-day procedures. Painstakingly, the author traces the origins of a few to their villages, life paths and even quirks. Unfortunately, there are also a few rotten apples like Kalokhe, and owning up to those is the hardest.
The book inspires and fills me with awe. It will delight every reader, particularly true-crime enthusiasts, with how wonderfully the story emerges out of a layered description of the city, making it a page-turner to be savoured slowly for its brilliance. More importantly, it humanises the dreaded drug queen Baby Patankar.
Meow Meow: The incredible true story of Baby Patankar
By: Srinath Rao
Price: Rs 399