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Sheela Raval and the underworld diaries

 ‘Main Shakeel Bhai bol raha hoon. Farmaiyen, Sheelaji!’


This line has become immensely popular and captures the spirit of the work of Sheela Raval, who is among the first female crime journalists in India to investigate the underworld. What sets Raval apart is the sensitivity, boldness and honesty with which she has undertaken these dangerous projects.

Her book, Godfathers of Crime, published last year was an honest and objective chronicle of the Indian mafia, their lives and their personal journeys. Her three-decade-long career trajectory in print and television has been eventful, to say the least! She has been face-to-face with some of the most notorious criminals across different parts of the globe. Yes, she has attended Dawood Ibrahim’s daughter’s wedding in Dubai. She broke the news about Chhota Rajan surviving a brutal assassination attempt in Bangkok in 2000. She is the only person to have interviewed Samira Jumani, noted gangster Abu Salem’s first wife, after Salem’s arrest and extradition. The list goes on……

Godfathers of Crime will soon be translated into Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. Bookedforlife converses with Sheela Raval to know more about her interesting trajectory. Edited excerpts:

Let’s go back to your very first crime writing story. How did it all begin?  

It just happened. It was never planned or desired. Crime was one of the many areas that I covered as a reporter, but it was noticed prominently. I am adventurous by nature. It was the typical Gujarati mindset that works when it comes to take risk in life or profession- that if I fail, it will be a huge learning, but if I get any success on the way then I had have hit the jackpot. I feel I have been lucky. But yes, it wasn’t a cake walk ever!  The process is very painful and arduous.

Being a female crime reporter comes with its share of challenges. Have you ever felt unsafe?

I never felt unsafe due to the nature of my work. Journalism is all about interacting with a set of people. In my case it was the underworld mafia, terrorists or white collar criminals. In my long innings of 25 years, I have not faced any major issues with them. But, it would be wrong to say that problems don’t exist. Intimidation, veiled threats, subtle harrying techniques are common professional hazards. I have had my share of these too!

There were unnerving moments. It is surely not a good feeling when you know that you have been under the surveillances of the mafia or white-collar sharks. It has been a tight rope-walk for me, strictly working within professional limits while adhering to all legal parameters. More than the underworld mafia, it is the political and official class that is more adept at flexing muscles.

What made the members of the ‘underworld’ open up to you? What gave you the kind of access that is indeed required to write as detailed an account as you wrote in the book?

Your intention matters. It is how you approach the matter that makes or breaks it.  Communication is an art and with experience you can master any art.  They tend to keep tab on journalists, particularly those who cover crimes. Only when you ‘pass’ their perception test, you gain an entry point.

What fascinates you about the underworld? 

I was not fascinated but was just curious to explore the new professional area that was more challenging. I was curious to see the way they travelled so far despite being from humble backgrounds, and the survival and killer instincts that drove them to the point of no return. I have no sympathy for them when I am saying this, but I would just imagine the kind of instincts that they would have had to reach a level where they are now dealing with the international financial system, dabbling in foreign currency counterfeiting, allegedly printing currencies of various countries, smuggling drugs, organizing violence and so on. When I wanted to meet Dawood, it was not to listen to his fairy tale story or about his bravado and exploits. He is human at the end, just like you and I. I saw that most of them, were craving for social dignity.

The book is soon going to be released in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. The response to the English edition has been great as well. Could you share any memorable feedback from readers on the publication of the English version? 


The response has been overwhelmingly great. Among all the readers, M N Singh, former Police Commissioner of Mumbai, shared a secret with the audience at the book launch. That was very special. Singh said, “She appeared to me as someone who was over enthusiastic and trying to get into very dangerous zone at times. I always used to hate her because she always out did us.”


What is your secret to maintaining professional credibility and objectivity?  

Balancing the role of a journalist with credibility, one who never breached the trust of her subjects, given that these gangsters knew that whatever they spoke to me could go against them, was a tough part. When they chose to speak with me, it reflects their trust in my skills as a journalist who would convey what the matter is, the way it is told. I religiously stick to what I primarily set out to do. I stick to the subject. I try to be alert when I talk to criminals or gangsters. I don’t take sides ever and stick to the subject. I remain alert about how they perceive what I say. I never forget that I can be heard by the agencies, which perceives reality differently.

Is it true that you also conduct workshops with defence forces? Could you give us a brief glimpse into that?  

I can’t share much about it except that it was a valuable experience to have audience from all three forces with different sensibilities.

What are the kinds of book you like to read, at present?

On my bed side now are: Givers and Takers by Adam Grant, Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Five weeks in Balloon by Jules Verne, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End by Atul Gawande, Nujeen: one Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen.

Is there another book in the pipeline? 

A sequel to the first one.

Well, we’re sure Sheela Raval’s next book will be as forthright and fearless a peek into the underworld!


Dhanishta Shah

Dhanishta is a Counselling Psychologist and a freelance writer. She is the Founder of Bookedforlife.