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Apr 7th, 2002 #1
On February 20, 2002, a funeral procession made its way through the
bylanes of Grant Road to
Narialwadi Kabarstan in Mazgaon. The funeral was of a 90-year-old man
who died of heart attack the night before.
To curious onlookers, it would have been a "normal" funeral
procession except for the throngs of Pathans, the heavy police
bandobast and the amount of attention the funeral seemed to have
generated in the media. For the present generation, the name Abdul
Karim Khan Sher Khan alias Karim Lala, whose funeral it was, would
hardly ring a bell, for Karim Lala achieved fame long before Bombay
Karim Lala, the proud Pathan, had the ubiquitous distinction of being
the first underworld don of Mumbai. The rise of Karim Lala from a
nondescript immigrant Pathan to a much-feared underworld don is no
less than what Bollywood films are made of.
In the early '30s, Karim Lala made his way from the hilly tracts of
Shigal in Afghanistan to the bright lights of Mumbai. He never went
back. Along the way, he also realised the needs of a city that was
fast becoming a metropolis. Lala consolidated the Pathans in the city
and made it known that goons were available, for a price, to settle
disputes that one wanted resolved without resorting to the
jurisdiction of law.
Lala's men were hired by ordinary people to terrorise and settle
disputes through muscle power. Thus, started the cult of dadagiri on
an organised scale.
Later, Lala befriended other dons — Haji Mastan Mirza, Yusuf Patel
and Varadarajan Mudaliar of Matunga — and supplied his men to them.
He was also the one to outlive the other old-time dons.
Lala's family, however, asserts that he wasn't involved in any
malpractice. According to son-in-law Zaffar Khan, although Karim Lala
was friendly with Haji Mastan and others, they had different business
"Karim Lala was always busy with his two hotels — Al Karim Hotel and
New India Hotel. Later, he opened a travel and passport agency — New
India Tours and Travels. He was never involved in smuggling,
narcotics or any other illegal activity. But he got the blame because
Haji Mastan and others were his friends," says Zaffar Khan.
His family is also quick to highlight the good work that Lala did
under the aegis of Pakhtoon Jirga-e-Hind, an organisation of Khudai
Khidmatgars, of which he was the president for 30 years. According to
Lala's family, the organisation was started after Partition and
Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, appointed Lala to address
the problems of the Pathan community.
Lala, to his credit, dispatched his duty with élan. He settled
disputes, arranged shelter and food for the needy, organised
marriages, Haj trips. He was the proverbial Godfather to the
community and refused to get involved only in divorces. His wife
Fauziya recalls, "Many people came for help in divorce but he always
told them `Main milaoonga par alag nahi karoonga.'"
Till his last days, Lala continued to be a mediator and address
problems of not only the Pathan community but others as well. Perhaps
what made him so popular was his lack of distinction for the rich and
poor. His evening durbars at his house addressed the problems of both
classes of society.
Lala was also known to be close to the film industry and had many
friends in Bollywood whom he helped. Zaffar Khan recalls the time
when actress Helen came to Karim Lala for help. "Helen's friend P.N.
Arora had taken away all her earnings and was refusing to give her
A desperate Helen went to Dilip Kumar, who told her to meet Karim
Lala. Helen came to meet Karim Lala with a letter from Dilip Kumar.
Lala mediated in the matter and Helen got her money back," says
In fact, Lala inspired many reel characters in Bollywood. Kader
Khan's role in Angaar, the character of Sher Khan enacted by Pran in
Zanjeer, Badshah Khan in Khuda Gawah, all had shades of Karim Lala in
them. Perhaps the best enactment, according to Lala's family, was
Dharmendra's in Hathyaar. "It was like watching baba on screen," says
Sanjay Khan even offered him a role in Kala Dhanda, Gora Log but Lala
refused it. The script was then changed and Sunil Dutt taken in.
Actor Kader Khan recalls his association with Lala.
"Karim Lala was from the same area where I spent my childhood. While
growing up, I used to often see Karim Lala come to the dargah. Being
a fellow Pathan, I would watch him from a distance. He used to take
advice from my father who was a scholar," says Khan, adding that Lala
did a lot of good work for immigrants from Afghanistan.
"Pathans are a backward, illiterate, poor community. Karim Lala
looked after them. He was a kind-hearted man who helped every person
irrespective of caste or creed. He was a real don, resembling one of
those characters in Hindi films," adds Khan.
While it would be easy to romanticise the philanthropic work done by
Karim Lala, it may be recalled that Lala and his men introduced inter-
gang rivalry and brought violence to the streets of Mumbai.
A fellow Pathan, police inspector Shamsher Khan Pathan, has no
sympathies for Lala. When Mr Khan was posted as a sub-inspector in
Dongri police station, he arrested Lala's bodyguard Shamshuddin for
possessing an imported revolver without a license. An inquiry was
conducted, as it was an illegal weapon, but Shamshuddin,
subsequently, got bail.
"I have never sympathised nor supported Karim Lala even though I am a
Pathan myself. I am a loyal government servant and Pathans and
Pandits are equal to me. I have never met Karim Lala but I know that
he used to avoid me. I had a reputation of being hot-tempered and I
had arrested one of his bodyguards," says Mr Khan. He adds that he
has never heard of any good deed done by Karim Lala and instead
recalls the time when Lala was accused of setting a slum on fire.
"In 1984-85, there was a landlord-tenant dispute in Dawood Bagh in
Shuklaji Estate, Nagpada. The landlord wanted the tenants to be
evicted as he wanted to develop the land. There was a dispute and the
slum was burnt down. Karim Lala was supposedly the one who set it on
fire. A charge-sheet was filed in Nagpada. However, I heard that he
was acquitted later," recalls Mr Khan. He also accuses Lala of
introducing inter-gang rivalry in Mumbai. "In Mumbai, all the areas
where dadagiri flourished were generally controlled by Muslims.
In the 1970s-80s, the Pathan leader Lala got into conflict with the
Konkani gang led by Dawood Ibrahim which started the gang war," says
In the mid-80s, as a result of this rivalry, Lala's nephew Samad Khan
was killed by Dawood Ibrahim. Dawood also lost his brother Sabir when
Amirzada, a Pathan from Lala's gang, killed him near Prabhadevi.
Amirzada was arrested and brought to the sessions court where he was
shot dead by David, a member of Dawood Ibrahim's gang.
It was the first time that a person had been shot dead in an open
court in Mumbai during trial. David was injured and arrested but he
later managed to escape from prison. Amirzada's brother, Alamzada,
another important member of the Pathan gang, settled in Gujarat where
he was killed in an encounter.
"Another gang war which led to a lot of bloodletting was between
Karim Lala and Aziz, who had two sons Hamid and Majeed. Karim Lala
and his brother Rahim Lala made a peace settlement with Aziz but a
few days later Samad Khan killed Aziz. While Hamid was in jail, Munna
Bohirlal Gupta, one of Lala's men, killed Majeed. An angry Hamid told
one of his muhbola bhai Sohail to do something.
Sohail killed Rahim Lala, who was the father of Samad Khan and
brother of Karim Lala. Sohail was himself killed in an encounter
later. When Hamid came out of jail, he was shot dead inside Fun and
Food restaurant by Munna," explains Mr Khan.
At this stage, the peers of the community decided to interfere. When
Karim Lala went for Ummarah, a truce was called between him and
Dawood after the peers allegedly made them swear on the Quran that
there will be no more violence. After that, the two gangs left each
Lala's family concedes that there was a dispute between Dawood and
Lala. "People were dying in the inter-gang war and it was time to
compromise and make peace," says Zaffar Khan. Not only did Lala call
a truce with Dawood, he also retired from the underworld, deciding to
concentrate on his hoteliering business instead. "There was nothing
left to fight for.
His brother and nephew were dead. His other nephew, Samad Khan's
brother Rehman, was a businessman and not interested in the
underworld," says Mr Shamsher Khan.
For all his censure against Karim Lala, Mr Khan concedes that he was
much better than the present day dons. "Karim Lala and his men were
into dadagiri, not extortion rackets like present-day underworld
dons," he says.
In spite of being close to many prominent people from the film
industry, Lala never used his contacts to extort money like it is
done today. "Extortion started around 1986-87 by the Dawood Ibrahim
and Arun Gawli gangs. Those were the peak years of extortion and
later Amar Naik gang also came into the picture. After the Mumbai
riots, Chhota Rajan and Dawood parted ways and now the main business
of these gangs is extortion," says Mr Khan.
After retiring from the underworld, Karim Lala concentrated his
energies on family and hotel business. Although the Karim Lala name
continued to inspire terror, he mellowed with age. Bollywood star
Jackie Shroff remembers how terrorised he was on meeting Lala.
"I had heard a lot about him and was quite scared. One day I got the
opportunity to meet him and was taken aback to find a very nice and
hospitable man. He kept on telling me `Pista badam khao,'" laughs
In fact, Karim Lala's hospitality was well known. Guests were never
allowed to leave until they had lunch or dinner with the family. Lala
would entertain them in his home in Tahir Manzil, behind Novelty
Cinema in Grant Road. He had moved into the first floor of this
decrepit building 40 years back and stayed there for the rest of his
When he first moved into the Parsi colony, the neighbours were not
quite happy. But within a few months, Lala put an end to the
bootlegging and hafta business in the area, thus winning over the
neighbours. "When baba died, many of our neighbours came and wept.
They feel scared and insecure now specially after the Gujarat riots.
They told us that they feel as if their Godfather has died," says
When he was alive, Karim Lala was advised by many to move to a better
place in Bandra or some other posh area. But he refused to move out
of Aguiary Lane saying that it was a peaceful area and "mujhe yahan
sukoon milta hai."
The sunset years of the don's life were spent in the house tending
his plant, playing with his great-grandchildren and meeting visitors
seated in his favourite rocking chair. Lala had converted the terrace
of his house into a pretty garden and as much as he loved children,
he made sure they steered clear from his plants.
His only regret, reportedly, was that he never had a son. Karim Lala
married twice and both his wives produced a daughter each. In later
years, Karim Lala adopted his eldest daughter's son Salim Khan who
grew up at his house and now looks after his business. His first wife
Fatima, who died around 10 years ago, and second wife Fauziya stayed
together with him in the same house.
"He used to say `Main khushnaseeb hoon ki mujhe dono biwi achchhi
mili.' He was a very nice husband and was very good to me. Unki
aadatein bahut achchhi thi. He was good to everyone including our
maid who has stayed loyal to us for 25 years now. No one had any
cause for complaint," says wife Fauziya, who would have completed 50
years of marriage with Lala in another six months.
After retirement, Karim Lala became a very religious man. He even
gave up his favourite Chivas Regal whiskey after a Haj pilgrimage.
The only vice that he couldn't renounce was smoking. On February 19,
around 8.30 pm, when he was reading namaz, he bent down to do shazda
and never got up again. He was immediately taken to the Ismailiya
Hospital at Byculla where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
For his family the very fact that he died while reading namaz is a
blessing in itself. As his daughter says, "Hamare liye yehi bahut
bari baat ha."
Pashtun never forgets Pashtunwali even if he growsup in the hills of Hindustan.
Apr 7th, 2002 #2Sultan Toora----
Apr 12th, 2002 #3
that proves it.
pashtoons rule:smile:the game of snakes and ladders captures the eternal truth that for every ladder there is a snake waiting around the corner. and for every snake there a ladder will compensate.
Apr 12th, 2002 #4
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wow.... i just read halfway thru it. this is amazing.. im starting to think mario puzo got many of his ideas from lala...facebook.cheegum.com
Apr 15th, 2002 #5Sultan Toora----
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