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From Crime and Drug Addiction to Love of Books: Sudhir Sharma finds Refuge in Azamgarh

By Adab Nawaz,

 26 August 2011

Azamgarh: Sri Ramanand Saraswati Pustakalaya (SRSP) sits on a high plinth, overlooking green paddy fields and a swollen Ghaghra river. Mainly housing tomes in Hindi, SRSP is pride of Jokahra, a dusty village in Azamgarh, a district in UP with abysmally low literacy rate but high incidents of crime. It faces serious charges of nurturing several alleged terrorists, including Abu Salem. But more than the library, it's the librarain who is a centre of attraction for many.

Sudhir Sharma has some unique qualifications: a former member of Bombay's underworld don Karim Lala gang, a drug addict and peddler who served over 10 years in a Goa jail and a connoisseur of Hindi literature.

"Kitabon ne jeene ka matlab diya, varna main kabka zinda laash ban gaya tha (Books gave me a meaning to life, otherwise I had become a living corpse," says 47-year-old Sharma, now frail, a shadow of his former self (a photograph taken in the early 1980s has him showing off his broad chest and bulging biceps). Drug abuse and a subsequent incarceration robbed Sharma of his once strong, athletic physique. But surprisingly, his prison term cemented his romance with Hindi literature, a bond which landed him his current job.

A college dropout, Sharma ran from his Delhi home in 1981, reached Mumbai and, as luck would have it, ended up joining Samad Khan, the gangster nephew of Karim Lala who smuggled gold, ran gambling and liquor dens and operated extortion rackets. Initially, Sharma says he worked in the city as a security guard and used to sleep on the pavement in Andheri. Once the cops arrested a serial chain snatcher who confessed that he shared the pavement space with Sharma in the night.

"I was arrested too and imprisoned where I met Samad. He would get lavish home-cooked food and would often share it with me," he recalls. Before Samad was slapped with National Security Act (NSA) and transferred to another jail in Akola, he had promised Sharma that he would get him out. Though another jail bird, a builder, paid for Sharma's bail amount of Rs 2000, it is gangster Samad to whom Sharma returned after release.

"I had promised Samad that I would join him once I was out of jail. He too was released and I joined him," says Sharma without a trace of remorse.    

Samad introduced Sharma to his uncle Karim Lala, by then an old patriarch who ran his "empire" from his den in Dongri. "Lala would sit on a charpoy outside his office while all kinds of people would go in and out of Samad's adjacent room," he says. Sharma adds he had a unique job of a messenger, occasional shooter and an office boy. He worked with Samad from 1981 to 1984 and was detained a couple of times too. "The cops thrashed me thoroughly every time they arrested me. Samad got me released every time I was picked up," he says. Once Samad was eliminated (in 1984) by a rival gang, Sharma says he felt orphaned.

To forget Samad's abrupt loss, Sharma took to using drugs, including charas and brown sugar. With his godfather (Samad) gone, there was no one to put a brake on his path to self-destruction. He moved from Dongri to Behrampada, a sprawling slum in suburban Bandra where he lived between 1985 and 1990. There he peddled drugs and ran his own small extortion "business." He claims he tried to give up drugs a number of times, would even bribe the local police to keep him in the lock-ups for weeks so as to enable him to be away from the drugs.

"I tried but failed to quit it before it began to silently kill me. One day I looked into the mirror and couldn't recognise myself. I had lost weight and looked horrible," he says. "I decided to quit."

The desire to turn a new leaf brought him to balmy Goa, but even here he couldn't quit the drugs completely. One day the Goa police found 28 grams of brown sugar on him, and presented him in the court which sent him to jail for 10 and a half years.

It is here that he fell in love with Hindi literature.

Reading Hindi magazines like Saptahik Hindustan and Dharmyug was his childhood hobby. In Goa central jail, he chose his work carefully. "I opted for cleaning toilets as, after the work twice a day, I had plenty of time on my hand. I too utilised it for reading," he says. He wrote to editors of Hindi periodicals across the country. He praised the contents of quarterly Pahal, edited by Jabalpur-based Gyan Ranjan, and requesting him for some books. The editors became his pen pals who who willingly sent him bundles of books and periodicals. Sharma shows a file in his tiny room at the SRSP library complex which has several letters from several prominent personalities, including then senior IPS officer Kiran Bedi. On a wall in the same room, Sepia-toned photographs of Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh hang. "They are my heroes. Like them, I am an atheist," he declares. Sharma recalls that the father of a fellow prisoner in Goa once sent two books to his son, a copy of the Ramayana and Marx's Das Kapital. "He kept Marx and returned Ramayana," laughs Sharma whose own parents are alive but he has not met them for over two decades.

Among his pen-pals was senior IPS officer and Hindi writer Vibhuti Narain Rai whose novel Kissa Loktantra Ka (Story of a Democracy) had immensely impressed Sharma. "I couldn't believe that a serving IPS officer could write such a bold novel," Sharma says. Then the jailer started returning books meant for Sharma. When the jailer returned a set of books Rai had sent, he dashed off a letter to him arguing that the prison was meant to reform an inmate and he/she should be allowed to read books. But the jailer refused to co-operate, quoting him Goa's jail manuals which said jail inmates could not correspond with those whose names he had not given at the time of his entry to the prison. A letter to then I G (prison) in Goa, recalls Rai, evoked similar terse answer. "This angered me. I complained to the National Human Rights Commission and was preparing to file a petition in the Supreme Court when a national daily front-paged the injustice to Sharma. It generated a nation-wide debate," says Rai. Subsequently, a lawyer in Goa filed a petition in the Panaji High Court which ordered the jail authorities to provide not just books to all the inmates but even allow them to watch Television.

Sharma felt vindicated and  aggressively began devouring Chekov, Maupassant, Premchand and whoever he could lay his hands on--of course only in Hindi, the only language he knows.

Before his release from Jail in 2003, Sharma wrote to Rai again, requesting him to put him in a gainful job after his release. "I told Rai saab that the only other option I had was to return to the crime world," says Sharma, a bachelor.

After his release, he revisited some of the streets in Mumbai which had made him a criminal and a drug addict. "Most of my friends were either killed or in jail. I went to Rai saab's library in Jokahra," he says.

Despite all the upheavals he has faced, Sharma says he doesn't nurse any grudge against anyone. He has opened a new chapter.