Photographer (for Vinod Bhagat): Satish Malavade
I’m a jyotish, not a gambler,” said Kalyanji Gangadhar Bhagat on the April 2, 1962, at the ‘opening call’ of the first ever matka in the compound of his building Vinod Mahal, in Worli. Unlike latter matkas, picture cards—such as king, queen and knave—were included in the pack from which cards would be picked to determine the day’s winning numbers. “The queen and king represented numbers 11 and 12 respectively, the 12 figures signifying the 12 rashis of Indian astrology,” remembers Vinod Bhagat, Kalyanji’s son and Suresh Bhagat’s elder brother. “The knave, if picked would be tossed aside.” Today the Bhagat family’s cards, or jyotish-vidya, foretell a full circle. There’s a king, a queen and a knave. But it’s not the knave that’s been tossed aside.
Born a farmer in the village of Ratadia, Ganesh Wala in Kutch, Gujarat, Kalyanji’s family name was Gala. “’Bhagat’, a modification of ‘ bhakt’, was a title given to our family by the King of Kutch for our religiousness,” says Vinod. “The King didn’t give much else to the Kutchis, which resulted in mass migration to avoid drought and famine,” recalls Pravin Shah, a Kutchi financial consultant who’s researched the matka system as a hobby, and met Kalyanji often in this regard. “Kalyanji, one such migrant, came to Bombay in 1941.” From there on, after jobs like masala feriwala and kirana store manager, his journey from a room in a BBD Chawl to owning two buildings, ensued from his becoming a bookie receiving bets on the opening and closing figures of the New York and Bombay Cotton Markets.
From the mid fifties however, the cotton figures became too predictable to be bet on, prompting Kalyanji to study the American numbers game, and introduce matka. “The name matka is because the idea occurred to my father while seeing people bet on numbered chits drawn from a pot,” Vinod clarifies. “No actual matka was ever used.”
This non-existent matka travelled from Worli’s Vinod Mahal, to an area near Zaveri Bazaar (where it was managed by to be rival Ratan Khatri) to various parts of India and eventually the world (bets were booked from the Middle East and the US). Even with Khatri breaking away in 1964 to form ‘Ratan Matka’, a daily ‘turnover’ of rupees one crore (cited in 1974) left plenty for everyone.
Kalyanji’s ability was one reason for his meteoric rise. He instituted a syndicate to overlook card picking, to ensure gambler’s trust. Unlike Khatri, he shunned publicity to keep his operations away from public glare, yet had hotlines to the city’s who’s who. The brand ‘Kalyan Worli Matka’ was spread by word of mouth and through goodwill generated by countless philanthropic activities he undertook. But another reason for his success was the game’s format. “You can bet even with one rupee, so even beggars bet,” Shah lists. “You can bet on just one digit, and have better odds than at a lottery (odds vary from 1:9 to 1:15,000). And the process is so simple.” And still, the format of matka resembled that of a lottery, a fact that, coupled with a tremendous amount of bribe, prompted authorities to treat it lightly.
JAYANTILAL, VINOD AND SURESH BHAGAT
“The spread of matka In India has been phenomenal,” says Joint Commissioner Crime, Rakesh Maria, who’s in charge of the Suresh Bhagat murder investigation. “It is has the capability of subverting an entire system. It is with this case that we have understood its magnitude. It is the underworld’s economic pipeline.” Though Maria refuses to state figures, another police officer quotes on condition of anonymity that rupees one crore is now the daily ‘profit’ generated by the business. “I left the family matka business 30 years ago,” claims Vinod. “And so did Jayantilal (the eldest of the brothers).” While Jayantilal Bhagat diversified into the wholesale sugar market, Vinod started a film equipment business, supplying the latest in the field. “A popular area of diversification for all three brothers, as indeed many who transferred illegitimate funds to legitimate businesses was shops, given to a relative or friend to manage,” says Shah. Suresh, known like his father for his acts of charity, often placed a person in need of a job in such a shop, for which he would pay the pagri (advance), on condition that he continue to receive a share of profits even after the pagri was repaid.
Vinod keeps emphasizing every once in a while that Suresh, despite being in the matka business had a “kind heart”. “He was a simple man. His only hobby, which is also mine, was listening to Hindi film songs,” continues Vinod, pointing to a closet full of Hindi film CDs. “Even if someone betrayed him, he would never harm the person… just tell him to get lost.”
Yet why did he not let the matka business go, even after it became dangerously imbued with underworld influence? “Whoever runs this business has too much power,” Vinod protests. “He didn’t want it to go into the wrong hands.” Police sources believe otherwise: “No one would let go of a goose that lays golden eggs. Yet the business was slipping from Suresh’s hands because he was unable to control the huge network of bookies it operated through.”
JAYA AND HITESH BHAGAT
Jaya Chheda had an arranged marriage with Suresh Bhagat in 1979. Vinod refrains from talking about her, simply saying, “I have my family to fear for. I don’t want to say anything that may put them in danger.”
“Her father, who had a grocery store in Kalbadevi, was known as an extremely pious man,” cites a family friend of the Bhagats, as the reason for the Bhagats’ choice of Jaya as bride. “The Kutchi community in Bombay held him in high regard.” This friend and certain members of the family, while choosing to remain anonymous, cast a variety of aspersions on Jaya’s “bad character showing early”, ranging from her being unduly ambitious and siphoning off the family’s funds, to her alleged affair with Gawli aide Suhas Roge. “She was eager to show off and live the good life, while Suresh had a modest lifestyle,” is the reason stated for the rift between the two. Suresh and Jaya’s son Hitesh Bhagat (in his late 20s), meanwhile, is simply described as a wayward child, who takes his mother’s side.
A source within the police department who witnessed Jaya’s interrogation during an earlier arrest claims differently: “She cited endless instances of psychological cruelty by family members, culminating even in death threats.”
But even if psychologically oppressed and morally debauched, how did a traditional Kutchi housewife take over 70 per cent of a matka empire worth hundreds of crores? (An empire that she supposedly commands even while in police custody today, via her brothers Deepak and Kiran Chheda.) “The process was gradual,” the same officer continues. “First she learnt the business from her husband. Then as her husband lost control over the bookies, they started referring to her. Even Roge was a person she met as a Bhagat family friend.” Her alliance with Roge, he says, could have facilitated her getting her husband trapped in the series of narcotics cases which kept him in and out of jail for three years.
When asked whether the murder of Vasant Shah in 1998, which the Gawli gang is accused of executing to safeguard Pappu Saavla’s matka empire, bears a parallel to this case, police officers refuse comment. Joint Commissioner Maria does too, but says, “The person who draws the card and calls the numbers (called ‘chief’ in matka parlance) holds immense power. Enough to entail a mass murder like the one we have witnessed.” Put differently, Suresh Kalyan Bhagat’s ‘closing call’ came early, at around 2 pm, June 13, 2008. It would appear the matka was fixed.
This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/oh42