On a certain summer day back in 1962, a man appeared at the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s office and asked the gaggle of crime reporters hanging out there to accompany him to Zaveri Bazaar for an important story.
He first took the reporters to a snack shop where he treated them to some eats. He then took them to another shop where an earthen pot — a ‘matka’ — was kept on a table next to a deck of cards. It was there that a man identified himself as Rattan Khatri.
Khatri removed the Jack, King and Queen from the deck and placed the remaining cards inside the pot. He then asked three reporters to step forward, put their hands in the ‘matka’, and pull out a card each.
These card numbers were declared as the lucky numbers for the day. Khatri then made an announcement: “Juay ke is naye silsile ka naam ‘matka’ hoga (This form of gambling will henceforth be called ‘matka’).”
This story — related by journalist and writer Vivek Agarwal, who covered Mumbai’s matka scene for many years, and who says he heard it from one of the journalists who went with Khatri to Zaveri Bazaar that day nearly 60 years ago — is one of the many, apocryphal or otherwise, tales told about Mumbai’s famous “matka”, a betting game a bit like Tambola, with people placing bets on certain numbers as the winning ones that would be drawn from a ‘matka’ at the close of the day’s books.
Khatri, who would later come to be known as the “Matka King” of Mumbai, died in his South Mumbai home last Saturday (May 9), after having suffered a brain stroke recently.
For a man who for decades carried the fate and hopes of tens of thousands of people in his famous ‘matkas’, Khatri died in relative anonymity.
Apparently, until the very end, he had a soft corner for games of chance. He was seen often at the Mahalaxmi racecourse dressed in his usual attire: white kurta pyjama with a black bandana tied around his forehead.
At a time when Covid-19 has disrupted life in the city of dreams in an unprecedented way, Khatri’s death was a reminder of a time when Mumbai was still Bombay, and when you could not make a “trunk call” around 9 pm anywhere in the country because bookies had taken over the phone lines to pass on the “lucky” number of the day pulled out by King Khatri.
Like the more famous Dawood vs Rajan of the underworld, ‘matka’ too saw bitter rivalries, though without blood on the streets, conspiracies to usurp a larger share of the ‘matka’ pie, gangsters demanding protection money, succession pangs, and eventually a sensational murder.
And this is the cameo role Khatri plays in the movie ‘Ratan Rangeela’ where he stops a fight between Rishi Kapoor and another actor & talks about being a ‘dada’ , since dada was his pet name 🙃 pic.twitter.com/tfIkvBzqqn
— Mohamed Thaver (@thaver_mohamed) May 15, 2020
Today, there exists a virtual version of the ‘matka’, which used to be known as a “poor man’s casino”, but it has been overtaken by cricket betting and online lottery — even though, old timers say, neither is a patch on the popularity that ‘matka’ betting enjoyed for the three decades leading up to the 1990s.
The story of the ‘matka’ dens of (the then) Bombay is the story of two ingenious men: Khatri, who came to the city from Karachi following Partition, and Kalyanji Gala, who came from Kutch to make a living in the city soon after the 1944 “Bombay docks explosion”.
The family of Kalyanji Gala changed their surname to Bhagat, based on ‘bhakt’, after a family member, or so the story goes, was given the title by the King of Kutch for his loyalty.
Vinod Bhagat, son of the late Kalyanji who died after a heart attack, told The Indian Express that his father used to stay at the BDD chawl in Worli, and had started a kiranastore nearby.
He realised the people of Bombay were gamblers at heart, literally too, when he heard about the betting in the city on closing rates at the New York Cotton Exchange that were transmitted daily via teleprinters.
So Bhagat decided to start a simple betting game of his own.
“The system of waiting for the numbers had become unwieldy and it happened only on five days a week. On April 2, 1962, my father devised a system of using a deck of playing cards for numbers on which people could place bets. It was a deck of 12 ‘aankdas’ (figures) where the Queen and King represented the numbers 11 and 12 respectively. The Jack was not included. Three cards would be drawn daily. Within a month it caught on, and became famous as Worli ‘matka’ because it operated from Vinod Mahal in Worli,” Vinod Bhagat said.
With people able to bet anything from a rupee upward, it became hugely popular among Mumbai’s mill workers who did not have much money to spare, Bhagat said.
They could bet on one or all of the three numbers separately, or on the sum of the three.
Said Bhagat: “Its popularity grew so much that soon the ‘betting market’ in Zaveri Bazaar, that had around 50 bookies, contacted him. They asked him to start operating from Zaveri Bazaar as people came there to place bets. But by then Bhagat was a busy man, and he franchised his invention to one of the retailers in the betting market, Rattan Khatri.
“Tum teen patta kholo par matke ka naam Worli matka hoga (You start ‘matka’ betting there but the name will remain Worli ‘matka’), is what my father told Khatri. And thus Khatri began operating from Zaveri Bazaar. The only difference was that Khatri’s ‘matka’ had only nine ‘aankdas’ as Jack, Queen and King had been pulled from the deck.”
Several veteran police officers said that unlike liquor dens, ‘matka’ dens resulted in no law and order problems. While it was illegal, they would make payouts to politicians, local cops, and later, pay the underworld the ‘haftas’ that were demanded. Those running these ‘matka’ dens did not feel that it was something wrong. A majority of them functioned openly with tables put up outside railway stations to accept bets.
Khatri soon become a big name, and started his own ‘matka’ called “Rattan matka” with a daily turnover that touched Rs 1 crore. A source who knew Kharti closely said, “There were three main reasons for Khatri’s popularity. One, he believed that ‘the more you give people, the more they will play’. So the bets were stacked in such a way that people generally tended to get more money back from Rattan ‘matka’.”
The second reason was the use of telephones to spread the word about the wining number. Former Mumbai Police Commissioner D Sivanandan said, “Khatri’s ‘matka’ empire extended until wherever the telephone wires went.”
Sivanandan added that such was the telephone traffic, and the influence of the ‘matka’, that MTNL blocked calls so that the bookies’ trunk calls informing others about the winning number could go through everywhere in the country. “They were burning the wires,” said Sivanandan.
The third reason was the apparent transparency that Khatri sought to project about the process of selecting the three winning numbers.
“Wherever he was roaming around, normally in the Kalbadevi area, he would ask anyone, from an Irani cafe owner to a club employee, to pick the three cards in front of a crowd so there was no suspicion of foul play,” said an associate who was close to him.
In later years, when Khatri became a big name and started financing several movies, some without any mention of his name, he would have filmstars pick the numbers.
In his autobiography ‘Khullam Khulla’, the recently deceased actor Rishi Kapoor wrote, “Another dubious character I used to know is Rattan Khatri, once referred to as Mumbai’s ‘matka’ king. He produced a film called Rangila Ratan that had Parveen Babi and me in the lead… In the evening, he would ask either Dadamoni (Ashok Kumar) or me to pick a card, the number of which was flashed all over Mumbai within minutes. That was the lucky number for the day.”
The actor also wrote about an incident, which he says he had heard about, that showed how important time was to the process of drawing the lucky number.
“I remember hearing about an episode when Khatri was on a plane from Bangalore to Mumbai. The flight got delayed and he wouldn’t have made it in time to announce the ‘matka’ number for the day. So he actually got the pilot to connect with the control tower and announce the number because if there was a delay in putting it out, there would be chaos. Even the police were okay with this because they didn’t want a law and order situation on their hands,” the actor wrote.
Incidentally, Khatri also has a guest appearance in Rangila Ratan, which he financed on record.
Retired police officer Suresh Walishetty said, “The number would also be published the next day in the paper. However since betting was not legal, there would only be hints such as a character in an ad raising as many fingers as the lucky number, or under the guise of the cotton rates. Those who bet on it, knew exactly where to look for the numbers in the newspaper.”
From the Express Archives | From Matka king to anonymous punter, life’s come a full circle for him
According to Vinod Bhagat, the relations between Khatri and Kalyanji were swimming along until Indira Gandhi declared the emergency and several ‘matka’ operators and bookies, including Khatri, were jailed.
“My father had been in hospital due to ill health, and using his contacts, managed to stay out of prison. Khatri was upset with him, as he felt Kalyanji did nothing to help him stay out of jail too. Relations soured between them after that,” Bhagat said.
While the ‘matka’ dens continued to flourish with Rattan Matka ruling the roost, things started going downhill for the business in the 1990s. Rattan Khatri himself gave up the ‘matka’ business in 1993. There are two versions of why Khatri decided to walk away.
A source close to Khatri said that in 1993, he along with his family were on their way to London for a family vacation. “At the airport, however, he came to know that he had been put on a no-fly list, and he was not allowed to board the plane. He was deeply embarrassed before his family, and decided to give up the ‘matka’ business,” the source said.
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Maybe as a follow-up to this decision or independently, Khatri asked Pappu Savla, a Borivali-based bookie, to run the ‘matka’ business in partnership.
“Savla, however, got greedy and wanted to usurp the business. They were already paying protection money to Arun Gawli’s gang. Savla had a meeting with Gawli, where he proposed to give him a higher share to push Khatri out of the trade. After that, Khatri left the ‘matka’ business,” said Vivek Agarwal, the journalist. Former DCP Ambadas Pote corroborated this version.
Savla was later arrested in cases of extortion and cricket betting, and frequently faced police action. In January 2019, he was externed from the city limits by the Mumbai Police.
A year before Khatri left the ‘matka’ business, in 1992, Kalyanji Bhagat died after an heart attack, and his son Suresh Bhagat took over the business. Suresh Bhagat ran his father’s trade for more than a decade and a half before a sensational murder plot put an end to the story.
On June 13, 2008, Suresh Bhagat, who had been facing a narcotics case, had gone to attend a court hearing in Raigad. While returning to Mumbai with his lawyers and aides, his SUV collided with a truck on the Alibaug-Pen road. Suresh Bhagat was killed in the crash, along with six others.
A few days before the incident, Suresh Bhagat had written to the then Mumbai Police Commissioner Hassan Ghafoor alleging that his wife Jaya Chheda and her lover, along with Suhas Roge, a member of Gawli’s gang, were planning to bump him off and take over the ‘matka’.
On investigating the “accident” that killed Suresh Bhagat, the police found that Jaya and her son Hitesh alias Chintoo had given a supari of Rs 45 lakh to Roge who had arranged for a truck driver to knock Bhagat’s vehicle off the road.
From the Express archives | Millions, murder, mafia… Mumbai matka gambling comes of age
The Crime Branch arrested all those involved, and they were convicted of the killing in 2013. Jaya remains behind bars, but is believed to be still running the ‘matka’ business with the help of relatives.
Old timers say that over the past few years, ‘matka’ has been overtaken by cricket betting.
“Matka still exists but has moved online in most urban centres. In rural areas, however, it still has a hold. Even now people will go and keep their money and the number they have selected in a hole in the wall kind of arrangement known only to those involved in ‘matka’. The bookie will collect it from there. If the person wins, the amount will be kept in the same place from where the person placing the bet can collect it,” Agarwal said.
However, one common refrain among most people associated with the ‘matka’ business is that the “honesty and transparency” with which it was carried out has now disappeared.
“In the past, a mill worker could put Re 1 on a number and win a big sum. People believed they had a chance. It is no longer a poor man’s game anymore. Now there is a lot of pull that big bookies enjoy, and they can manipulate the numbers,” Vinod Bhagat said.