You might mistake the synthetic stimulant mephedrone for salt, MSG (the flavour enhancer commonly referred to by its brand name, Ajinomoto, in India) or talcum powder. Yet, in 2015, law enforcement could afford to make no such error with the narcotic referred to as Meow Meow on the streets of Mumbai. The arrest of a policeman, Dharmaraj Kalokhe, for alleged possession of over 100kg of mephedrone worth ₹22 crore fired up the synapses of the national media. As controversy about an alleged drug syndicate involving police officials across Mumbai unfolded, the figure who seized national attention was not a cop but a working-class woman. Described as a “drug queen”, Shashikala “Baby” Patankar, Kalokhe’s paramour and business partner, was the one who had ratted him out. News channels had their Bonnie and Clyde.
Crime reporter Srinath Rao’s debut non-fiction book, Meow Meow: The Incredible True Story Of Baby Patankar, is a meticulously reconstructed account of this crime saga through legal documents and interviews with the police, witnesses, and Baby herself. Mephedrone had been classified as a controlled substance under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act only weeks before Kalokhe’s arrest in 2015. As Rao notes, “Cocaine was the Lindt chocolate bar of drugs. Meow Meow was Melody toffee, cheap and easy to find.”
The book is filled with pulpy anecdotes that are destined to be enthusiastically repurposed by Bollywood screenwriters. Suhas Gokhale, “the state’s foremost narcotics offences investigator”, entered the police force after his brother was murdered by a mob during the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai. One of Baby’s heroin sellers was a policeman working in the anti-narcotics cell (ANC). When Baby is in hiding, Kalokhe, relying on a favour from a businessman, manages to check her into the swanky clubhouse of the Mumbai Cricket Association. Not surprisingly, Sanjay Gupta of Kaante (2002) fame is already developing a web series on Baby.
Baby is simultaneously mythic and human. Her early life is marked by repeated misfortune. One of her brothers burnt himself after being assaulted by the police. Her parents died in quick succession while she was still young. Baby’s resourcefulness developed as a survival tactic. She sold milk bottles, worked at a fish stall, cleaned homes, pulled shifts at a textile mill and briefly worked as a midwife. She establishes herself as a realtor and landlady in the slum area of Mumbai’s Siddharth Nagar, building and leasing out houses to migrant families. In the years after she takes up dealing, “(h)er name became a mark of guarantee, the ISI mark for Meow Meow”.
Baby belongs to the Koli community, a heterogeneous dispossessed community. The Kolis were one of the many caste groups criminalised under the Criminal Tribes Act by the British, as sociologist G.S. Ghurye has noted. Rao traces the dispossession that pushed the community towards smuggling in Maharashtra. In one chapter, he compellingly lays out the geography of inequity, painting a picture of the gentrification of Mumbai around an increasingly burgeoning slum: “While Worli built modern homes with roofs which didn’t leak in the rains, bought cars and air conditioners and took the family out for roast pork in oyster sauce and honey noodles served with vanilla ice cream at Flora, Siddharth Nagar, trapped like a fairy-tale hill inside a snow globe, watched enviously. On the eastern skyline, never the same two months running, tower after new tower gave Siddharth Nagar the finger: fuck you, you filthy hill people and stay where you are thank you very much.”
Rao’s writing is often spry. When he describes a police official who imitates a friend who was on Meow Meow, he says, “He trained a deathly Amrish Puri glare at me and hung his jaw limp loose like jelly melting in the sun.” A chapter devoted to the episode where Baby tipped off the police about the drug stockpile at Kalokhe’s house while travelling out of the city to keep an eye on him, is nail-biting. The all-too-brief glimpses of the twisted entanglement between drug peddler and dirty cop are also intriguing. In the epilogue, Baby and Kalokhe attend a court session in December 2021, their animosity seemingly pushed aside. After it is done, Rao approaches her. “I asked Baby if she could persuade Kalokhe to speak to me but she pretended as though she hadn’t heard me. She climbed behind Kalkohe and placed one hand on his blue-shirted shoulder. The bike roared away.”
While the first half of Meow Meow is compelling, most of the latter half is bogged down by details of inter-departmental police investigation. The police officials who dominate this section of its narrative don’t make for the most beguiling of characters. Part of this has to do with the choppy manner with which Rao inhabits the third-person voice in these chapters. Gokhale, whom Rao thanks as a “friend and guide” in the acknowledgements, is etched sympathetically as a do-gooder who stands up for fellow officers. When a superior asks him to stand down during an instance of mob violence, he is quoted as declaring: “My brother lost his life because his colleague did not help him. I will not let that happen to Kale.” Yet, the same chapters take a clinical distance when it comes to his apparent misdemeanours: “Gokhale now had three kills to his name but thankfully hadn’t earned the tag of an encounter specialist.”
These gaps, I suspect, are not due to Rao’s lack of finesse. The disquieting coupling hidden in plain sight in most crime non-fiction is not that between cops and criminals but that between the police and media. Crime reporters rely extensively on police sources. Like drug dealers who double as police informants, crime reporters themselves are locked into a precarious and asymmetric relationship with the police. In a country where journalists are treated as renegades, the objective of truth-telling has to be balanced against long-term relationship-building. So, a number of provocative narrative threads are not followed to their logical ends.
War-on-drugs sagas ask us to dig into our ambivalence towards drug barons. They are tales about our disaffection with modernity. They are implicit histories about dispossession and uneven development. Most importantly, they are calls to action on the efficacy of law enforcement and carceral strategies. Meow Meow is absorbing but one wishes for a work that had unravelled more deftly the scripts of modern policing in India, which is built on tenuous agreements with the masses it purportedly serves.
Karthik Shankar is a writer and editor based in Chennai.