By SUNITA VIJAY
Title – The Barabanki Narcos: Busting India’s Most Notorious Drug Cartel
Author – Aloke Lal
Publisher – Hachette India
Genre – Crime (non-fiction)
As someone who bears the privilege of knowing Aloke Lal personally, I couldn’t be charged with puffery when I say he’s a truly versatile, multi-talented, compos mentis, ingenious, and perceptive person. His maiden book, a semi-autobiographical detailing of one among the most challenging postings this illustrious Indian Police servant has held, only proves my point. We see Lal don countless hats in ‘The Barabanki Narcos’. He’s not just a young, zestful, go-getting cop – the gentleman in Khaki is also an intent sportsperson, a warm-hearted friend (to his subordinates and informants alike), a helpful boss who commands genuine respect, a keen strategist, an observant and loving father to his pet-dog ‘Sheriff’, and as dutiful a husband as his job permits. Most importantly, he’s someone with a beating heart, an uncompromised moral compass, and a flourishing mind. On reading the above, should you get the impression that this book is about Lal, himself, you couldn’t get it more wrong. It’s a book about the perils of drug-addiction, addicts being described as ‘not criminals but victims of a crime’ themselves. It’s about the socio-economic realities gripping inhabitants of Barabanki, a district in the Uttar Pradesh of the 80’s (1984/85)– reeling under communal tensions in the backdrop of the seething Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, cow-slaughter leading to disturbance, some suffocated by penury and unemployment, subject to vote-bank politics as two alternating Chief Ministers relayed power between themselves, while Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi at the Centre devised ways to tackle the progressive Shah Bano judgment, and Barabanki locals dealt with the colonial legacy of illicit opium production and trade, as well as country-bombs. It’s also about the hope of reclaiming drug victims, and most prominently, about the two mega busts, the largest ever in history, of seizing around 450 kgs of opium in each, in an area with a ‘well-entrenched web of crime […] not known to spare any challenger to its unhindered existence and progress’. The book doesn’t intend to be a thriller, but it thrills nonetheless as it describes the immaculate planning, ‘a no- nonsense urgency to deliver results’ and lead-up to the perilous yet successful drug- raids. The intermittent portions narrating Lal’s commendable skills of criminal intelligence – identifying potential informants, trusting, protecting and nourishing them, and seamlessly weaving them into the system while not neutralising them – can serve as a realistic case-study for generations of police officers to come. It’s inspiring to see Lal put intel he has prised out of all possible sources – right from his fellow cricket-playing bud to his dog and local homeopaths – to good use. He’s trusting, yet cautious. He wishes to believe the best, especially in sportspersons, but is unwilling to let trust dominate vigilance. What impresses most is Lal taking routine factual detours to acquaint readers with the history of opium’s infamy and ensuing national/global regulations, the routes followed by criminals to achieve illicit profits, and the chemistry of the drugs themselves; such facts often leading to deeply philosophical and terse analytical quips such as ‘[D]rug-related crime has its own personality’. The book presents solid research, both, of the underlying narcotics and the overlying narcs pursuing the cartels, especially because it’s a true account; however, I was expecting more expounding of the narcos (traffickers) themselves. It does have loose ends – there’s a point I am left wondering why a crucial informant went missing in the first place only to resume his duties as if he’d never vanished – but none of these fragilities in the chronicle eat into the book’s gravitas; if anything – they only make it real. There’s subtle humour in the author’s expression, the commentary is layered, the author quoting Arthur Conan Doyle and Krishan Chander is meaningful, the chapter titles are congruous with the context, adjectives are used as befitting visual aids, Lal playing an ugly cop (contrary to his character) when good cop-bad cop doesn’t seem to yield results is intriguing, the context of inequity and the temptation of lucre especially for the young are well- described, the social critique looking at reasons behind crimes is healthy and the recounting of politically-charged times pregnant with communal tensions is diplomatically dispassionate, although genuine. The Barabanki Narcos is not just a story – I would hail it as productive use of any reader’s time – whether a bureaucrat (aspiring or existing), a student, a professional or anyone craving a brisk, breezy and simple read with a somber theme and a weighty message.