Once a much-feared but revered personality, the uncrowned king of the illegal 'matka' (betting) business Rattan Khatri breathed his last at his south Mumbai home on May 9, aged 88.
A refugee from Sindh in Pakistan, who moved to India during Partition, he lived briefly in Ulhasnagar, one of the biggest Sindhi migrants' settlement in Thane, before coming to Mumbai.
Old-timers say that he was known for his simplicity and humility, and commanded trust in his chosen trade, which endeared him to lakhs of minions betting millions of rupees on his few 'lucky numbers' daily.
'Matka' involves a lucky draw of numbers between 0-9 through playing cards, number pairs, 3-digits, etc. on which lakhs would place bets from morning to evening, depending on trends.
Such was the fad of that era that many local newspapers carried 'public service messages' indicating the popular numbers or the lucky numbers for the day, on which people would bet furiously.
"While some made thousands, others lost the like amount, but few seemed to hold him responsible, instead they blamed it on fate," recalled retired banker, B. K. Joshi, who used to dabble in 'matka' gambling on weekends to augment his meager clerical salary of Rs 500 per month in the 1960s.
"The amatka' betting was patronized largely by the lower and lower-middle classes, mill-workers, class III government employees, all hoping to make some extra bucks and finance some special needs of the family. However, there were even alcoholics, who would win and blow it up on booze, ruining their families," said Joshi.
It was way back in the 1960s that the young Khatri, who did odd jobs and tried his own luck with small bets of Rs 10, Rs 20, or on auspicious days, even Rs 50, joined Kalyan Bhagat, the famed owner of Worli Matka as a manager.
Perpetually attired in his trademark white kurta, pyjama, black chappals with a handkerchief tied on his head, Khatri would easily melt into the Mumbai working crowds, always footing it out around the city, or hopping onto BEST buses, and occasionally hailed a cab for longer distances.
After mastering the tricks of the trade at Worli Matka, he decided to call it quits in 1964 and took the gamble of starting on his own, as the 'Ratan Matka' betting syndicate.
"He introduced some level of transparency into the 'matka' betting by opening the day's three number cards either at the hands of the punters or personally in front of them. The timing was usually fixed at 8 p.m. daily," said veteran crime journalist with Janmabhoomi Group, Surendra Modi.
Khatri made it a point that if he was not at his headquarters, he would release the numbers from public phones, and then it would be communicated all over India within a few minutes, he reminisced.
Despite being patronised by the lower classes, it soon became a money-spinner with innovations and around 1970s, it touched a staggering Rs 1 crore turnover daily, and many clones came up in different names in Mumbai city and suburbs, Thane, Pune, Surat, Ahmedabad, Delhi and other cities.
Soon, Khatrri came to be regarded in the league of Karim Lala, Haji Mastan, Yusuf Pathan, though each kept their businesses strictly segregated, for obvious reasons.
"By early 1970s, he was high on the police radar which waited to pounce on him. But like most who jaywalk on the other side of the law, he managed to cover his tracks. He was arrested once, but let off by the courts due to insufficient evidence," said a retired police officer, requesting anonymity.
Naturally, big money lured big glamour and Khatri served to inspire Feroz Khan' blockbuster musical-thriller "Dharmatma" (1975) with the 'Matka King' enacted by Prem Nath, and later he (Khatri) himself played a small role in "Rangila Ratan" (1976) which starred Rishi Kapoor and Parveen Babi in the lead roles.
"He quietly started funding local politicians or candidates from different parties, even financed some films, and many Bollywood bigwigs reportedly used to bet big with Khatri. It seemed to be mutually beneficial!" said Modi.
At one point, the law caught up with him and he was jailed during the Emergency for nearly one-and-half years, but returned with full vigour with his brimming pot of luck.
Meanwhile, as the illegal betting industry made big bucks, even the officialdom devised ways and means to exploit the business for state gains.
Pioneered by Kerala, several states launched official 'lottery tickets', with the numbers announced on national television and advertised in the popular newspapers.
This gradually started spelling doom to 'matka betting' trade which practically became irrelevant by 1990s, and with advancements in communications, it gave way to cricket betting, political betting (mostly during elections), and in other fields.
As Khatri was ensconced in voluntary retirement, subsequently, his sprawling empire was controlled by one of his protege Suresh Bhagat and others with mafia nexus.
"Since Khatri remained a simple man till death, nobody is really aware of the wealth that he may have really created in those three decades when he was the pack leader," Modi said.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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