Headley and i, p.11
HEADLEY AND I,
S. Hussain Zaidi
Pushkar is a place near Ajmer in Rajasthan where a lot of foreigners tend to converge. It wasn’t exactly the urbane India I had seen until then—it had more of a hippie atmosphere, where one got to see and mingle with Europeans and Christians and foreigners. Often, they were high on drugs.
I went around Pushkar, recording and photographing extensively, and made a mental note that it would definitely have to be one of our targets. If a bomb could somehow be exploded here, there would be a lot of foreign casualties. It wouldn’t be too difficult, for the security setup was not as elaborate as in Mumbai. Finally, when I was convinced that I had done all I could in Pushkar and recorded enough material on my camera, I went back to Delhi.
In Delhi, I travelled all over town looking for targets. I had visited Manali earlier and drawn up a map showing Jewish centres there, complete with detailed locations and coordinates and the security arrangements in place. I went to the most famous spots in Delhi, Rajghat and India Gate being two of them. I even went to check out 10, Janpath, which is the official residence of Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress.
Acting on orders, I went to the National Defence College in New Delhi and conducted a reconnaissance of the place. However, since it was very well protected and monitored, I couldn’t do any videography there.
I did not stay in Delhi for more than a day—I did not like the city at all. After finishing my recce in the Indian capital, I left for Mumbai that same evening.
My meeting with David Coleman Headley at Shivaji Mandir is a blur in my mind.
Vilas had called me earlier in the day and told me that he was bringing a friend to an event we were to attend that evening. He asked me if I would buy tickets for them, as they were running a little late.
I had the tickets ready and was waiting for them with my friends when they arrived. Vilas introduced David and me, and told me that they had met at the gym where Vilas worked as an instructor. The first thing that struck me was David’s eyes: one was brown and one green. I had never met anyone with mismatched eyes before. I later found out that it wasn’t as uncommon as I’d thought it to be. In fact, some famous people like David Bowie, Kiefer Sutherland and Christopher Walken have a similar condition, which is known in medical terminology as heterochromia iridum, where one iris is a different colour from the other. It is often a genetic abnormality. But seeing David, how could I have known at the time that the man had two very different kinds of genes in him, with a Pakistani-Punjabi father and an American mother?
When Vilas introduced us, David said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’
He had a friendly voice, and as he spoke, he stuck his hand out. We shook hands, and I was impressed by his strong, confident grip. David was wearing dark glasses, which he took off later, a cap and a grey T-shirt and jeans. He was holding a digital camera in his left hand, which I assumed he was using to take pictures of Mumbai, like any other tourist. I thought David looked familiar, and then I realized why. He looked like a more handsome version of Steven Seagal, the Hollywood actor.
My first proper meeting with David—and the second time I met him—was on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Barista on Chapel Road in the suburb of Bandra. It is a two-minute walk from where I live. A few days after our first meeting, Vilas had called me and asked if I would speak to David. He said that David was training with him and had expressed a desire to meet a nutrition expert who could help him with sports nutrition. Naturally, I was the guy.
When I reached Barista, Vilas and David had already arrived and were seated at a table. I got a good look at David this time. He was a very impressive-looking man. At 6’2”, in his mid to late forties, David towered over almost everybody else in the café. He was a broad-shouldered Caucasian with a ponytail. But I was again struck by what I think is the most unique and defining feature of David Headley—his eyes, each a different colour.
I ordered some black coffee, the favourite drink of bodybuilders. Being a diuretic, black coffee reduces water retention and is hence considered a fat burner. Caffeine is also known to be good for the nervous system. In the course of the conversation, David told me that he was fond of bhel puri, chaat masala and pani puri. It was the first time I had seen an American talk about spicy Indian food with such gusto.
After some chit-chat, David asked my advice on nutrition. I questioned him about the sort of food he was having, and realized that his diet was deficient in protein. I told him how to increase his protein intake by consuming more natural food and taking dietary supplements. We were done after forty-five minutes, and David actually offered to pay me a consultation fee. But I declined, as he had come through a good friend, and we shook hands formally before leaving.
‘We should meet up again sometime,’ David told me as he sat pillion behind Vilas on his bike.
‘Yeah, sure,’ I said.
Our third meeting, after a couple of weeks, was at a place called Gondola in Pali Naka, again on a Sunday afternoon, around 1 p.m., over lunch. I finally summoned up the courage to ask David what he did for a living. He told me that he was an immigration lawyer and that he helped people from India and Pakistan immigrate to Canada and the US for a fee.
It was an enjoyable lunch, after which we parted ways. But this time, David and I exchanged cell phone numbers. Since he was using two cell phones, he gave me both numbers, and told me that I could call on any one of them at any time. We kept in touch after this.
We met again—the fourth meeting—after two weeks. Meanwhile, we had kept in touch through telephone calls and SMS. This time we met at a PVR multiplex in Juhu, where a film called Vantage Point was being screened. Vantage Point revolved around an assassination attempt on the US president, and it starred Dennis Quaid as a secret agent trying to protect the president. After the movie, we went for lunch to a place called Govinda, which is near the Iskcon Temple. As always happens after you watch a movie, we fell to talking about the plot and the characters and how the movie played out, and I realized that both David and I were huge action-movie buffs. We talked about the security lapses shown in the movie, and about everything else that the director had got wrong. David explained these things to me with quite a flourish, and amazed me with his knowledge of security and the way he analysed the film.
As we were finishing lunch, David asked me if Vilas and I wanted to move to Canada or the US. Seeing my puzzled face, he explained that people in the fitness industry do very well professionally in those countries, and he suggested that we should migrate there as well. I took his suggestion pretty much at face value, as I thought he was trying to be nice, but I didn’t think much about it.
We didn’t meet for a long time after that, for nearly four months. We kept in touch though, and he told me that he was travelling to Pakistan and the US, and that he would touch base with me when he returned to India.
We met for the fifth time at a place called Indigo Deli in Colaba. I picked up David and Vilas from the hotel where David was staying, and we drove to the restaurant, where Headley treated us to a dish called Philadelphia cheese steak. David said that his work often took him to Philadelphia and Chicago, and that he had family in both these states. Ironically, he said that the Philly cheese steak in this south Mumbai restaurant was much tastier than the cheese steak in Philadelphia itself! It became our favourite dish and Indigo Deli our favourite hangout.
It was at this meeting that we came to know of David’s intricate knowledge of weaponry. He regaled us with sparkling insights into ambushes and raids and security operations throughout the world. He spoke of intelligence agencies and about how they carried out international espionage and about the security apparatus used all over the world. He told us many things about counterinsurgency operations, weapons and explosives, frisking procedures and counter-interrogation techniques.
I was intrigued and, for the first time, I suspected that he was not what he said he was. I told him that he should get into executive protection, since it was a growing, profitable busin
After this, I began referring to David as Agent Headley. David despised being called ‘Agent’ and tried to convince me not to do so. But I continued to annoy him with it, and even mentioned it in subsequent emails. I later learned that he had asked Vilas a couple of times to tell me not to call him that.
Between meetings, we stayed in touch, and he often asked me how my foray into Bollywood was coming along. I had told him once that I aspired to be an actor. But whenever he asked me about my first film, I could never give a concrete answer.
After this, we met at a gym called Five Fitness in Juhu, which is where I work out. I was already running late, so when David and Vilas arrived, I called them upstairs to my flat. They came up, and I introduced David to my mother. He offered her a polite, courteous hello.
During that brief stopover at my flat, we told him that my sister had recently adopted a German Shepherd puppy as a pet. Again David displayed his knowledge about security issues and told us that American law enforcement agencies tended to use Belgian shepherds as sniffer dogs, since the breed had a far superior sense of smell than other dogs. He never ceased to amaze me with his knowledge.
We then went to the gym, all three of us, and had a macho workout session, during which David worked on the cross trainer.
After this, there was a gap of around six weeks before we met again. This time, Vilas, David and I met at the Sea Lounge restaurant inside the Taj in Colaba.
The restaurant was David’s idea. We ran up a hefty bill, and even though Vilas and I offered to go Dutch on it, David refused to listen to us, and insisted on paying the entire bill himself, using his American Express credit card.
I vividly remember this meeting, because until then I had thought that David and Vilas were very good friends, so much so that Vilas used to often joke with him, saying ‘we are brothers from another mother’. David would always laugh at this, but on that day Vilas crossed all limits of decency with him.
The moment we sat down at our table, Vilas said, ‘Yeh behenchod ka bill toh bahut aane wala hai. Dekh le madarchod ki kya haalat hogi!’
David kept a straight face, eating his sandwich and fries. I glared at Vilas, trying to tell him that he shouldn’t behave in such a manner, and that even the other guests might get offended. But he didn’t stop.
Throughout the meal, Vilas kept using expletives liberally and I was constantly glancing at David, trying to gauge if he had picked up any gaalis on the streets of Mumbai. But he remained poker-faced and did not react at all, as if he had not followed anything that Vilas said. He kept at his meal, laughing and joking with us and enjoying the food. Once, he excused himself from the table, saying he had forgotten something. He was back within ten minutes.
When the bill finally came, we saw that it was over Rs 4,500. When he saw this, Vilas said mockingly, ‘Abey madarchod, itna kam khilaya aur itna bill dikhaya! Saale, humko chutiya bana rahe hain kya!’
I looked at David, feeling very embarrassed. I was fervently hoping that people wouldn’t notice, because we would be in big trouble if anyone came up to us and raised an objection to the abuses that Vilas was hurling at David. More importantly, I hoped David did not understand what Vilas was saying.
I know for a fact that the first thing many foreigners learn when they come to Mumbai is street slang. I remember that when a friend of mine had come to Mumbai with his American wife, the first thing she had wanted to learn was a gaali straight off the streets of Mumbai. And having learned one, she went up to the bus conductor in a BEST bus they were travelling on, and said, ‘Behenchod, come and take the money!’ The people in the bus were left gaping. David, however, gave no indication of being able to make out what Vilas was saying and remained unaffected. Little did I know then that he was actually a Pakistani who knew flawless Hindi and Urdu!
The Sea Lounge meeting was a memorable one for more than one reason, but I’ll come to that later.
The three of us met again sometime during the monsoon, three or four weeks later, and by then, David and I had become very good friends. We kept talking to each other. I shared many things about my life that I don’t talk about with anyone I am not close to, and he was always a sympathetic listener. He and I developed a bond, which I suspected went deeper and was more meaningful than the relationship he had with Vilas. We talked about all kinds of things—crime and criminals, drug lords, security measures, military training in Pakistan—the list was endless.
From our very first meeting, he impressed me thoroughly with his intelligence. I told myself, ‘He’s my kinda guy! I like the way he talks, his personality and his approach to things.’ Just one glance was enough to see that he could charm his way through almost anything. Every time he walked into a room, one couldn’t help but notice this big six-foot, broad-shouldered, white, handsome Yank. There was something riveting about him and his smile, I don’t quite know what, it was beyond my comprehension.
I often called him David Armani because of the kind of clothes and accessories he wore. It started with his Armani clothing, which he said was tailored for him at the designer’s biggest store in Manhattan. He told us that it was the same store from where Bollywood biggies like Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt bought their suits. He was probably trying to connect with me, assuming that being an Indian and with a close Bollywood association, I would be swept off my feet by this information.
David always wore a Rolex Submariner, a brand famously preferred by drug lords and gangsters. I am not saying that I assumed he was one, but strangely, in my mind, he fit perfectly the image of The Godfather.
As we met frequently, I came to know that David was supremely vain. He took pride in his looks, was in love with the glint in his eyes and his beauty creams, and was terrified at the thought of going bald. He was an extrovert and extremely good at impersonating people. I also saw that he had a way with women. There was something about him that made women love him. He seemed genuinely appreciative of beauty and exercised his charm on pretty young things. He definitely had taste, be it in women or his only poison, Dom Perignon, or in his love for money and luxury.
David used to say that he loved guns and girls. He often told me that he wasn’t a philanderer or a frivolous sort of man, and was always extremely respectful towards women. However, I could not fathom his reasoning, and felt that he had loyalty issues. After all, he had four wives!
Just like me, David had a passion for books on military and warfare. He told me that he made it a point to read every night and worked on extending his vocabulary by learning a new word every day. He was very cosmopolitan in his ways and words.
I, on my part, love my action thrillers, my undercover heroes and my secret agents, and I enjoy my huge collection of books and movies based on these characters. Given the way he looked and sounded, it wasn’t hard to think of David as an undercover agent. It was like watching a reel hero come alive.
During one of these meetings, David told me that he wanted to take Vilas and me to Pakistan. He referred to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area as the wild wild west. But I was scared to go there, and told him so. I told him that I was afraid I would be kidnapped and murdered like Daniel Pearl. To this David said that nobody would dare to touch me if I was with him. He sounded very confident.
Then he said something that, at that time, I assumed was in jest.
‘You know,’ David said, ‘all you guys have to do is change your names. People in that part of the world might not like Indians.’ He waved his hand at Vilas. ‘We can name Vilas here Akbar!’
We laughed at Vilas’s incredulous face. The very thought of the hardcore Shiv Sainik being rechristened with a Muslim name was hilarious.
David then looked at me and said, ‘Maybe you should have a name like Mohammed Atta!’
We laughed and dismissed the matter
Looking back, I feel a shiver run down my spine as I realize how devious David was.
By now, Behera had Headley all figured out. Yesterday, there had been a slip on his part, when he had inadvertently shown his surprise upon hearing Headley curse in flawless, unaccented Hindi. He had violated the first rule of a good interrogator—he had allowed himself to become vulnerable enough to be thrown off balance by a suspect’s confession. And now he was afraid he had lost the advantage, the upper hand.
But as Headley walked in, his smile and swagger in place, Behera realized that it made no difference to Headley whether Behera felt he had slipped up or not. Headley was one of the most confident and self-assured criminals Behera had ever interrogated.
The muted tapping of the laptop’s keys—his partner’s— stopped as Headley drew back his chair and sat down, halfway between arrogance and cooperation.
‘You were telling us about befriending Rahul and Vilas to try and target the Shiv Sena and Bollywood,’ Behera said.
‘I know exactly where I was, sir,’ Headley replied, cocksure as ever, and started talking.
Before my recce of Delhi in September 2007, I had been concentrating fully on Mumbai. My friends in Pakistan—Sajid Mir, Major Iqbal and all my other Lashkar masters—were happy with my reconnaissance so far. They were also satisfied with my reportage and kept suggesting new places and new targets for me every time I visited Mumbai. I was only too happy to oblige.
I stayed in Mumbai from 20 March to 7 June 2007, leaving briefly in the middle, in May, to spend three days with my wife Shazia and my children in Dubai. My handlers were unaware of this short hiatus, although I kept Tahawwur Rana informed of my movements.
By the time I returned to Mumbai on 20 May—my fourth trip—I knew the city well. I had travelled the length and breadth of it, and I knew its layout like the back of my hand, especially South Mumbai. Most of the targets I had identified were in that part of the city.
HEADLEY AND I by S. Hussain Zaidi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes