Labyrinthine life of David Headley

As the anniversary of that dreadful day in November arrives– 26/11–thoughts go to the men who planned and executed the terror attack on Mumbai. One of them is David Coleman Headley, the man with two identities that turned him into an ideological schizophrenic.

Most of Headley’s life was spent in trying to figure out who he was—the son of an American woman and Pakistani man, both of whom treated him more a duty to be performed than a son to be cared for. Instead of seeing his mixed race (he actually has one blue eye and one brown!) as a disadvantage, Daood Gilani aka David used it to his benefit in his life as an FBI informant and jihadi operative.

The details of his checkered life may be hazy now, but there is enough material available about him for Jeff Goldberg to reconstruct his life for an eponymous production which he has written, produced, directed and acted in solo, as the ‘gora’ terrorist, the man who conducted the reconnaissance mission for the 26/11 attacks.

Goldberg is seated on stage, bearded, shaved head, handcuffed and dressed in orange US prison jumpsuit, where he is currently serving a life sentence.  His expression is wry, his gaze direct, he wants to tell the story of the “nine lies” that make up his life.

Headley spent just a few years in the US before the family moved to Lahore. His mother left soon after, leaving him behind; he did have problems fitting into that society as a white boy, being thrashed all the time, but also making enough connections in the elite military academy that he was sent to by his wealthy father, to stand him in good stead when he embarked on his complicated life as a drug runner and jihadi. When he went to the US, he was a misfit at military academy there too, but his Pakistani past helped him connect with those gangs of drug sellers. He operated under the innocuous cover of a video store.

Far from complaining about his situation, Headley turned into a chameleon, taking advantage of his white skin (he could wander around in Mumbai as an American tourist) and his ability to speak Urdu to insinuate himself as an informer into the American Intelligence network (that looked the other way and actually sprung him out  of tight situations when he was caught for drug dealing) and as a card-carrying member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, going for training in terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

For him no border was too tight, no situation too tough to wriggle out of; he simply mirrored whoever was in front of him and giving them what they wanted so that he could escape. He must have been a very convincing performer, or the people he dealt with willingly credulous.

Many writers tend to portray gangsters and terrorists as victims of a socio-political system and ask that they not be judged for their crimes, no matter how terrible.  Goldberg does not paint Headley as a victim pleading for understanding or redemption. He knows what he has done with full awareness, and has accepted that he has to pay for his crimes. His labyrinthine life makes for a gripping play, and it would perhaps, make a fascinating film some day.

David Coleman Headley – The One Man Show
Written and Directed by Jeff Goldberg

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Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best known entertainment journalists. A National Awardwinning film critic, Deepa has watched more movies and theatre than most people in the country. An author of several books on film and theatre, she has had an extremely successful run as head of theatre and film at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, during which she helped nurture several original productions. For Xyngr, Deepa Gahlot reviews theatre and cinema.