Headley and i, p.1
HEADLEY AND I,
HEADLEY AND I
S. Hussain Zaidi
Foreword by Mahesh Bhatt
‘You have a choice, son. Either you go through life whining like a victim, wearing your troubled childhood like a badge on your sleeve and earning sympathy from people who don’t matter or care, or you become a survivor. You use your pain and your rage as fuel to hurl you to the top of the heap. I did the latter. That is why I am where I am. Do you know, all said and done, you and I do have one thing in common. A childhood without a father …’
I was talking to Rahul as we travelled through the vast, awe-inspiring landscape of Spiti. This was literally God’s land. Thanks to my daughter Pooja, who was shooting her first directorial venture there, we were in Kibber, the highest motorable village in the world. This had become a rare opportunity for Rahul and me to be alone together after many years. In fact, after that painful night in 1985, when I had walked away from his home, when he was barely three years old. Little did I know that, years later, life would deal him a hand whereby he would be forced to make that choice.
‘Why do you want to call him Mohammed, beta?’ asked my mother, who had spent most of her life concealing her Muslim identity. She feared that what we called a secular India still viewed Muslims as ‘the other’.
‘Because I want your Islamic legacy to continue through my son in some small way,’ I replied.
My mother finally prevailed by ganging up with my Anglo-Indian Christian wife and my very reasonable, sage-like Maharashtrian Brahmin neighbour, and my son was called Rahul, alias Sunny.
In retrospect, I shudder to think what would have happened to my son in 2009, if he had been called Mohammed Bhatt.
Rahul was born to help stitch together my relationship with my childhood sweetheart, Lorraine Bright (Kiran Bhatt), which was by then in tatters. And I remember embracing the role of fatherhood once again with all my heart and soul.
A rare, early memory of Sunny and me together surfaces. Dawn is breaking over Pali Hill. I am an unemployed, struggling film-maker. I am wheeling Sunny in his pram on the deserted slopes of an affluent Pali Hill, taking him for a morning walk. A very happily drunk actor of some repute, returning from a late-night party, appears on the scene. Seeing me in an unlikely parental avatar with my little boy melts his heart. Bending down to Sunny, and breathing alcoholic fumes all over him, he gushes, ‘Will you remember how your father is taking you for this morning walk when everyone is sleeping? Or will you, too, like all sons, forget?’ Saying this, he slobbers a kiss on me and sways off to his car. Don’t ask me why, but that very funny memory moves me today.
Memories … Memories are the stuff of life. Man is memory after all. When I look within, I find that I don’t have memories of me with my son. A flourishing career, a second marriage, my quest for truth, all perhaps contributed in a way to clutter my life up, and leave me less and less time to spend with my son. (I hardly spent any time with my two daughters from my second marriage either during this phase.) Though I always continued to be a provider in every way, and a parental figure who stood by him through thick and thin, I guess the small things were overlooked. I was not able to give him the time of day when it came to the everyday things, the mundane, the ‘normal’ time that father and son get to spend with each other. Like the time I spent with him when I was a failure and unemployed. The bitter truth was that I had become what I hated. All my life I blamed my own father for not doing these things with me. And now I was doing the same. All I wanted was to be able to correct this. But I didn’t know how.
And then one day fate intervened to give me what I wanted. In fact, it seemed like the entire universe, no less, had conspired to give me a very bizarre chance to realize this desire!
‘I think this David Headley that the intelligence agencies are talking about is the guy I got to know through my fitness buddy Vilas Warak. I am certain that the Rahul they keep referring to is me,’ said my son to me over the phone.
It was just another day, but with that the curtains to one of the most trying phases of my life opened. For the world, it was entertainment. For me, it was nothing short of a catastrophe.
‘What should I do? Pooja and Mummy are saying that I should seek your advice and go to the police. What should I do, Pops?’ he asked, trying to sound normal, but I could hear the dread in his voice.
It was bizarre. Of all the cities in the world, it seemed that a terrorist called David Headley had picked this one. And then, on top of that, of all the millions of people in this teeming metropolis, he had chosen my son to befriend! I was in possibly the biggest dilemma of my life. In this world, where we keep talking about courage and duty, parents, however, are programmed to steer their offspring away from danger and to avoid risks. Don’t we train our children to seek out safety, to be wary of strangers, to fasten their seat belts, and to look all over the place before crossing the road? The very thought of losing them to some careless act of theirs or someone else’s haunts us day and night, and propels us to hover over them continuously.
But you are what you do, not what you say you ought to do. The whole family was being tested. Were we going to be mute spectators, or risk the public glare and perform the role that destiny seemed to have chosen for us?
The first impulse was to push away this impending tsunami that seemed to be moving steadily towards us, and keep silent. One had seen innumerable accounts of how this phobic post-26/11 public mood was propelling investigative agencies to act in the most unjust and inhuman manner towards so many innocents, and in particular to so many poor Muslim boys who were incarcerated for no real reason. Also, the thought that right-wing forces, with whom I have been fighting bitter battles, along with their plants in the media, would seize this opportunity to tear me to shreds and harm my son, was daunting to say the least. I realized only too well that this was not some television show about some unfortunate guy out there that I could switch off with the press of a button. This was real life, this was my son, and he was at the other end of the telephone line, waiting for an answer that could change his life.
I asked him a question. ‘Have you done anything that you are not telling me? Because if you have, you will have to bear the consequences of your own deeds, son. But if you haven’t, you have nothing to fear. Hold your head up high and go to the police.’
Before he hung up, he laughed. ‘Pops, I’ve done nothing wrong. Trust me.’
What followed were the best of times and the worst of times. The worst because the very culture that pretended to admire and express gratitude towards the men who had sacrificed their lives in the carnage of 26/11, turned around and put these two young men in the dock. Rahul, Vilas, our family and I became the staple diet of hungry news watchers, night after torturous night. Right-wing forces combined with news channels to deliberately create suspicion around my son and demonize him. What I could never understand is how, instead of applauding these two courageous boys for helping clueless investigative agencies gain deep insights into the actions of this double agent, everyone and anyone came to the conclusion that they were guilty of treason. In fact, they were heroes. Vilas even lost his job and has not got it back to this day.
It would be fair to say that the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Mumbai Police and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) officers behaved with tremendous dignity and applauded the boys privately if not publicly. But my so-called friends and relatives suddenly shrank into the background somewhere, fearing some kind of terrible crime was about to be uncovered. I, who had stood up for every Tom Dick and Harry, suddenly found myself alone. My brave and fiery daughter Pooja and I formed a firewall around Sunny and fought the battle on a daily basis, waiting for the tide to turn in our favo
But they were also the best of times. Because my son and I became close to each other for the first time in our lives. He began to see that the man who had walked away in the middle of the night in 1985 had actually not gone anywhere. Ironically, all the years I had spent away, carving a name for myself, helped me to finally protect him. Because if I was not famous and a ‘somebody’ who was respected for speaking the truth and walking his talk, I wonder if my son would have come out of this unscathed. If he had been the son of a ‘nobody’, would they have looked at him in the same light? As I write this, my heart goes out to so many innocent people out there who have not been as fortunate.
In some primitive tribes, when a son came of age, he killed a wild beast to show his father that he was finally a man. To me, Rahul’s willingness to bare his soul, the dignity and fearlessness with which he negotiated this terrifying phase in his life when he was accused of being a traitor by some, and his desire to give a blow-by-blow account of the whole story is a sign that the boy I took out for a morning walk many summers ago had now become a man.
And this man’s journey has just begun.
Mumbai MAHESH BHATT
The moment of epiphany occured as my friend Adrian Levy attacked his Zaffrani Chicken Kabab with relish. He said something that suddenly made a lot of sense.
For neophytes, Adrian and his wife Catherine Scott-Clarke are a formidable team who report on terrorism in the subcontinent, especially Pakistan. Adrian is one of a kind, having covered terrorism in Pakistan for the past twenty years. He is also the bestselling author of four non-fiction books. We were having dinner together the evening before he left for Bangkok.
I had absolutely no access to Pakistani intelligence at this point and was desperate for a glimpse of their dossiers on David Headley. I could procure the information only through the ‘triangulation technique’, which involves communicating through a third party, since direct communication is not possible. ‘Pakistani intelligence organizations, including the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), are a cakewalk for me, just as the Mumbai mafia is for you,’ Adrian told me. Oh, what a moment!
A brave and intrepid journalist, Adrian has amazing contacts with FIA officers, something he revealed to me quite modestly. Over a period of time, he laid bare to me numerous intricate Pakistani operations, the way they displayed remarkable sangfroid while handling Indian operations, and what they felt and discovered about David Coleman Headley, or Daood Saleem Gilani.
So here I am, writing about another Daood—with a different spelling. Incidentally, if the NIA sleuths are to be believed, Headley never thought highly of Dawood Ibrahim; in fact, Headley believed that Dawood lacked dedication to the community. ‘He is more of a self-obsessed businessman,’ Headley told a senior NIA official, who in turn disclosed this to me.
Nevertheless, both the Big Ds have a lot in common. They had strong, authoritative, famous fathers. Mumbai Crime Branch’s Head Constable Ibrahim Kaskar had tremendous clout in police circles, yet his own sons—Sabir, Dawood and Anees—went astray. Similarly, Saleem Gilani was a high-ranking Pakistani diplomat, but Daood, or David, turned out to be a drug peddler and a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative.
It is difficult to analyse the two Ds from the same perspective, yet the uncanny similarities between them are stark and hard to ignore—their dysfunctional families, the widening chasm between them and their parents, their quest for normal, comfortable lives, avarice for money and power, a desperation to gain recognition in the community, and highly honed survival instincts. They also derived their first names from the same revered prophet mentioned in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran—Daood or David.
In the case of Daood Gilani or David Headley, the absence of one parent or the other at two crucial stages in life seems to have enraged the hidden demons in him. Peter Taylor, a BBC investigative journalist, observed in his remarkable book, Talking to Terrorists, while discussing the case of Germaine Lindsay, one of the accused in the 7/7 London bombings, ‘He displayed some of the factors that are common in some, but by no means all, young Jihadis: a fractured family background, vulnerability, insecurity and alienation from mainstream society.’
At another place, Taylor says, quoting terror investigators, ‘When I ask nine out of ten of the young men I work with, “Tell me about your relationship with your father”, most of them say, “Well, I don’t have much of a relationship with my father.” So, as a result, an individual has a gap in their life in terms of who their role model is, and they search for a father figure, and in particular a senior male role model. Unless they find someone who can channel them down a very positive way and give them a sense of purpose and guidance, they are really prone to a whole range of extreme radicalisation.’
Rahul Bhatt and David Headley are classic examples of this phenomenon. In fact, Rahul Bhatt narrowly escaped becoming the next Mohammad Atta. Headley’s aura, personality and charm had so influenced Rahul, who did not have a male role model in his life and had always yearned for one, that he eagerly gravitated towards him; so much so that if Headley had asked him to follow the wrong path, Rahul probably would have, no questions asked. ‘Headley wanted to take me to the wild west of Pakistan, the north-western provinces, though he never revealed that he was a jehadi. But he could have slowly tried to indoctrinate me into radical ideology,’ Rahul told me once.
The theme of this book might appear different from that of my previous books. But 26 November 2008 is a black Wednesday for me. I lost a friend, Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare, in that terror attack. If Black Friday was about jehadi conspirator Tiger Memon and protégé-turned-police-witness Badshah Khan, Headley and I is a reprisal of the journey of Rahul Bhatt with David Coleman Headley. I am going back along the same route as Black Friday, only this time, to a ‘Black Wednesday’.
Headley and I, or my Black Wednesday, is a story with a similar quadrant: two men—one an outlaw and the other a helper of the law. It is the story of David Coleman Headley and Rahul Mahesh Bhatt. Two men, so different, yet so alike. They belong to fractured families, are highly intelligent and charismatic, and both are wannabe James Bonds. Headley got a high out of drugs, drug dealers, peddlers and making dangerous deals with everyone, from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to senior officials of the US Justice Department, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and top echelons of the ISI. Rahul, you will be surprised to know, has read every book available on spies, terrorism and the mafia, and has watched every movie on the subject. He could tell you the kind of pistol a particular gangster was fond of. At one point of time, he even wanted to be an official spy, working for RAW. He is fascinated with weapons and could tell you a thing or two about the latest arrivals. And, of course, he is the poster boy for bodybuilders in Mumbai.
The bond between Rahul and David was a powerful one. While Rahul saw a father figure in Headley, the latter saw Rahul only as a codename for Mumbai. Rahul had spent approximately 1,000 hours with Headley and planned to spend more, when Headley was finally busted in the US. Rahul was devastated. He had lost a father figure for the second time in his life.
Narrated in an unconventional dual narrative in first person, Headley and I tells the story of these two from their individual points of view, taking us into their minds, their motivations, their family backgrounds and their feelings.
I must say I tried to tell it in other formats. But I realized the impact was lost, and I wasn’t satisfied with my work. While Rahul let the floodgates of his emotions open in an exhaustive narrative, Headley’s story was constructed from minute details recorded in the US government files and documents after his interrogation.
It was a small room, with an exit at one end and a high, barred and grilled window at the other. The walls were a subdued metallic grey. Normally, there would be exactly four pieces of furniture in the room—a table and three chairs, all made of steel. Today, however, there wer
The room was similar to that seen in thousands of movies, where criminals are theatrically broken by policemen, where the age-old ‘good cop–bad cop’ routine is played out. But this was the real thing; this was where it all actually happened.
The two men sitting at one end of the rectangular table appeared composed. The three others, who sat across from them, were distinctly out of place, but were obviously trying their best not to show it. Conversation was strained, and after barely a few minutes of forced politeness, both parties lapsed into silence, waiting. The one thing in common between the two sets of men was that neither had any trust in the other.
Exactly at the designated time, without any preamble, the door opened and two men walked in, escorting a third between them. The group of three at the table looked up with interest.
This then was the man they had flown halfway across the world to meet.
He was casually dressed, shirt and denims visible under an orange jumpsuit, and seemed totally at ease. It was evident that this was a routine he had become used to, as he immediately walked up to the only vacant chair in the room and sat down.
The first thing that struck them was his eyes, one brown and one blue. It gave him a strange other-worldly air. They had never seen a man with mismatched eyes in different colours. The man’s gaze and demeanour exhibited total sangfroid. He did not betray even a hint of stress or anxiety. Neither did he evince any interest in the three strangers present in the room, almost as though he was entirely unaware that three pairs of eyes were boring holes into him.
Rahul Bhatt had told them that he was a muscular, well-built man. But this man was overweight and flaunted a prominent paunch. He seemed to have been well nourished in the US jail. Well, they were not here to assess his physical condition but to question him on his links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba.