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Moths At The Altar Of An Illicit Flame

Journalist, author and visiting faculty at IISc Bangalore, Amrita Shah delves into the heart of the Gujarat metropolis to come up with an intimate portrait of a city and its people

Moths At The Altar Of An Illicit Flame
Moths At The Altar Of An Illicit Flame
Ahmedabad A City In The World
By Amrita Shah
Bloomsbury | Price: Rs. 499

July 9, 2009: The toll has risen to fifty. Three hundred victims are being treated at three hospitals. Most of these men will die. Stupefied by liquor, they are likely to have ignored the initial signs, the vomiting, the stomach pains, the prickling behind the eyes. By the time they have arrived at the hospital doors, likely as not the poison has corroded their insides to an irremediable extent. Illicit hooch contains a distillate of a fermented wash containing methyl alcohol, ammonia, rotten fruit and sometimes copper sulphate. Hospital authorities explain that methyl alcohol is metabolised into formaldehyde when consumed, the poisonous formaldehyde cells affi­xing themselves to tissues. The process takes three hours. During this time, ethanol, intravenously injected, can prevent the digestion of methanol by the liver and allow it to be excreted without metabolism. But with patients arriving 24 hours or more after consuming the lethal drink, chances of survival are low.

The next day the modus operandi begins to unravel with the arrest of a hooch supplier, Harishanker Kahar. A migrant from Uttar Pradesh and a habitual offender, Kahar or ‘Hariyo’, as he is called, is a wholesale distributor of country-made liquor in Ahmedabad. Hariyo’s arrest puts the police on the trail of the supplier of the hooch, an absconding dairy owner in Mehmedabad, a satellite town of Ahmedabad. Hariyo confesses that he knew the 700-litre consignment he had received from Mehmedabad on July 5 was possibly lethal when his alcohol meter showed twice the regular concentrate of methyl alcohol. He reckoned he could dilute it more than usual and double the stock. He continued to sell the brew even after learning of the deaths. Hariyo is booked for culpable homicide (not amounting to murder).

Six police officers from Ahmedabad, including four inspectors and two assistant commissioners of police, have been placed under suspension and transferred to other parts of the state. Teams of the State Reserve Police have been rushed to vulnerable border districts to prevent the flow of illicit liquor into Gujarat from neighbouring states. Political scientist Ornit Shani maintains that the widespread phenomenon of policemen abdicating their duties on political orders during the communal violence of 2002 was enabled to some extent by a history of extreme politicisation of the police force and its complicity in the bootlegging business.

The widespread phenomenon of policemen abdicating their duties on political orders in 2002 was enabled to some extent by the complicity of the police in the bootlegging biz.

The hooch deaths which were earlier concentrated in Majoor Gam, close to the old walled city, are now being reported from further east. Victims are being identified in the newer and more distant industrial areas of Amraiwadi, Naroda, Rakhial, Bapunagar and Odhav. Nineteen have died in Odhav and people have been spotted lying near the canal vomiting. At Amraiwadi, locals continued to protest against the incident, forcing the police to resort to lathi charge and tear gas shelling. Meanwhile, unclaimed bodies continue to surface. As more information is uncovered about the zones that the consignment of the brew that has killed over a hundred people has reached, authorities reportedly ‘step-up’ efforts to track its fatal march. A total of 462 bootleggers have been arrested in raids across the state. The police have seized large quantities of raw materials used in the preparation of spurious liquor, along with containers and bottles.

“There have been deaths in Bapunagar also in this latha kand,” Tulsibhai says with raised eyebrows. “I heard of one man from our Market.”

“From our Market?” Dhanjibhai repeats, shocked. “How can it be...a middle-class person?”

“Who can tell? This daaru thing is like that. Anyone can get addicted.”

The forsaken lot A diamond factory in Ahmedabad. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook 11 May 2015)

Dhanjibhai reflects on this. Or perhaps he doesn’t. I can’t really tell. He has a broad, expressionless face. For much of the afternoon, he has been slumped in his chair, head sunk, staring at the floor. I have been sitting with the two diamond traders in Dhanjibhai’s office in the Sardar Patel Diamond Market on a hot summer day in 2009. I have come to witness the effects of the ongoing worldwide economic slowdown on the diamond polishing business, one of India’s two biggest export-led industries. Outside, in all the offices, on the steps of the three-storeyed Market and in the cubby holes that face the road, middle-aged men, much like Tulsibhai and Dhanjibhai, are sitting stiffly against white bolsters in front of low sloping desks which contain the tools of their trade: an eye glass, pincers and pouches of diamonds. They drink tea, swat flies or do nothing. They are not destitute; they have savings to tide them over. But they are not educated. When they have no work they do not know what to do. Time passes very slowly.

The global recession has made nary a dent in the fortunes of the Palanpuri Gujarati Jain diamond merchants, but for karkhana owners and their many workers, it has spelt doom.

Tulsibhai takes me on his scooter into the backlanes of Bapunagar. The nerve centre of the diamond-cutting and polishing business—India has 90 per cent of the world share—is in the city of Surat, 265 kilometres to the south. But in the 1980s, workshops started opening in Ahmedabad as well, mopping up labour freed from the textile mills and attracting migrants, mainly from peninsular Gujarat, imbuing Bapunagar with a mildly exotic flavour. The karkhanas of Ahmedabad are small-scale units doing piecework for the trade that is controlled by immensely wealthy Palanpuri Gujarati Jains living in mansions in Mumbai, Surat and Antwerp. The global recession has reportedly made little more than a dent in the fortunes of these mega millionaire diamond traders; some see it as an opportunity to speculate in the stock market. But for the owners of karkhanas and hundreds of thousands of workers across the state the downturn has spelt doom. On an average one diamond worker has been committing suicide, every day, over the last three months.

In a two-storeyed building with a narrow frontage that housed a busy unit we find a lone polisher scraping a diamond on a ghanti. Since Diwali almost all the karkhanas in Ahmedabad have shut shop. The workers, many of them employed couples, have been without work for six months or more. Bapunagar pullulates with ‘tension’, a much-heard word in the diamond district these days. Blood pressures are high. A gnawing anxiety renders nerves as brittle as leaves in late summer. ‘Devu’, another word of the moment, means ‘debt’ and indicates the piling arrears: unpaid rent, school fees and medical bills. Money, even for daily groceries, is scarce.

I meet two former worker couples in a small flat bearing signs of bourgeois gentility: a television set, a refrigerator, school bags on a rack and decorative knick-knacks. The comfortable lifestyle enabled by the diamond business has engendered middle-class notions of respectability. “We don’t want much, just a little help to tide over till the industry picks up again,” has been the common refrain. But, with the days of joblessness lengthening into months and no sign of help forthcoming, the measured appeals have given way to bewilderment. The workers talk about their contributions to the Indian economy, their donations to public causes such as the national war chest for Kargil or Gujarat’s earthquake relief fund and express bafflement that they should be so neglected. They understand that the politicians from peninsular Gujarat who have taken up their cause are out of favour with chief minister Narendra Modi but surely, they say, he should be above such partisanship. “If he is the raja (king), are we not his praja (people)?”

It is disconcerting to watch their dignified reticence slowly come undone. Unused to organising themselves as a labour force, they struggle to articulate their distress. They write letters to the chief minister. They talk to the media. They seek political support. A veil of disheartenment hangs over these efforts. They wonder why the media carries misleading stories of functional karkhanas. They wonder if it is worthwhile protesting and incurring the further wrath of the chief minister. They wonder if it is better to get by with small subsistence-level jobs, doing piecework embroidery or couriering documents. A worker says in frustration that he will fast to death all by himself at the Gandhi ashram on the Sabarmati. Then, one morning, diamond workers in Ahmedabad, overcoming their doubts, gather outside the Gujarat Assembly building in Gandhinagar and are beaten back by the police. A journalist colleague, newly arrived in Gujarat, is horrified by the brutality and even more by the disrespect shown towards workers, unimaginable, he says, in his home state, the pro-Marxist southern state of Kerala.

(Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India. AHMEDABAD will be released on 16th May, 2015)

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