The Gold Sellers from the Gutters

Driving to Zaveri Bazaar, the gold hub of Mumbai, at 6.20 am on this pleasant October morning, I have only Kanye for company. My phone is playing “Gold Digger” which sort of sums up this morning’s mood. We drive past the typical signs of Mumbai coming out of its slumber – rows of pavwalas lined up outside a bakery, sleepy five-star hotel employees on their way to work the morning shift, and newspaper vendors handing out copies of the morning dailies to delivery boys.

I walk through the deserted Zaveri Bazaar and the only sign of activity is a mangy stray dog stretching and a couple of municipal workers lazily sweeping the streets. Huddled around a few open gutters, is a curious bunch, men aged 25 to 40, with aluminum pans, polythene bags, and buckets in tow, who look like they’ve been hard at work for hours. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think these guys are Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan-ing the gutters, declogging it of all the detritus the city flushes down the drain. Look closer and you’ll see their hands elbow-deep in a pool of brackish water. Buckets and bags of sludge are being ferried to some unknown corner.

“Kya aap log ghamelewalleh hai,” I ask cautiously. One of them, whose name I later learn is Sunny, a young man with a boyish, but serious face gives me a slightly surprised look. He grunts something that sounds like a muffled “hmm” and goes about his business, his tattered trousers rolled up to his knees, his rough, work-hardened hands caked with sludge. It takes him time but he finally tells me what he’s up to.

The ghamelawallahs search for stray gold particles that make their way onto the streets of Zaveri Bazaar.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Sunny is a ghamelawallah, lowest in the pecking order in Mumbai’s ironically colourless gold market – a muddle of cramped alleys dotted with gold workshops and jewellery stores. A peculiar tribe, it earns its moniker from the Hindi word for the precious pan they use to sift the gold from the grime. The work is backbreaking. It involves sweeping every square inch scrupulously, collecting the dust, lifting lids of gutters near the gold workshops, and picking up the muck, often with cockroaches and other insects squirming over their arms. All of this, in the search for stray gold particles that make their way onto the streets. Some stuck to the soles of jewellers’ shoes, others flushed down the drain when craftsmen wash their hands. It is for these wasted flecks of treasure that the ghamelawallahs live their lives.

Sunny came from Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur to Mumbai eight years ago. After years of struggling as a labourer, he befriended an old ghamelawallah, and joined the country in its obsession with the shiny metal. But Sunny and his ilk, who pick gold from the garbage, sit at the lowest end of the spectrum of people involved in the trading, designing, purchasing, and hoarding of this precious treasure.

It’s nearing 10 am and Zaveri Bazaar is slipping into its usual chaos. A snooty seth with a pot belly walks past Sunny. “Namaste, Gupta sahab,” says a cheery Sunny; the seth gives him a stony stare which indicates it’s time for the ghamelawallahs to pack up. While some jewellers seem unperturbed by the ghamelawallahs and their harmless treasure hunt, there are many like Gupta sahab who brand them scavengers.

After almost five hours of searching through the infuriating drains, Sunny and the other ghamelawallas collect around seven kilos of sludge. “Itna bas hua aaj ke liya,” says Sunny, and directs me to follow him. In a seedy corner at the end of the lane, he has set up a makeshift laboratory of sorts with a small furnace and a pot of water. He begins to separate the “useful waste” and at the end of yet another hour of digging his hands in the gunk, he’s left with two buckets of something that resembles wet sand and smells worse than a public toilet.

The sun is blazing and I’m getting increasingly impatient. Sunny beckons me to pay close attention. “Abhi kuch hi waqt me jaadu hoga. Tum bas dekhna,” he tells me. I have been waiting for the magic to unfold for five hours now.

Sunny carefully rocks the ghamela, half-full with the stuff from one of the buckets and some clean water. As he deftly moves it around, he gives me a basic lesson in ghamela physics: The gold is heavier than the stones. Hence, it settles to the bottom, while the granules and dirt flow out. He tilts the ghamela as fine sand, dirt, grit, and tiny stones trickle out. Excitedly, he shoves the ghamela in my face and says, “Dekho.” I squint in the midday sun, but can barely see anything. And then, under a shaft of direct sunlight, I can see them… tiny yellow flecks as ephemeral as pixie dust.

Sunny looks at me with sparkling eyes. This gold dust is his life’s work. I arrange my face in appropriate wonder.

Satisfied with my reaction, Sunny then adds mercury to the pan to process the gold. I quickly retreat and cover my nose. I tell him to cover his too. Mercury poisoning is dangerous for the nervous system, but he pays no heed to my safety call and me. He uses a stick to mix the mercury and the mud without any gloves, oblivious to the danger he is exposing himself to.

Sunny looks at my horrified face and reassures me by pointing to an old man, whose face is almost inside a ghamela, that he hasn’t seen anyone die because of mercury poisoning. “This chacha has been in the business for years,” he smiles.

He then brandishes a tiny magnet and runs it over the residue like a magic wand. He filters all the iron particles, save for a 25 paise coin, which he pockets. And then huddles over the furnace, made out of a clay flowerpot, powered by coal. In a dented stainless steel vessel that looks like it has been subjected to a hundred experiments, all gone wrong, he empties the mercury-laden gold. With a look that resembles an eccentric scientist, he adds nitric acid to it.

As thick, pungent smoke billows from the vessel, I say my “Hail Mary”. Sunny’s gruff voice interrupts my thoughts. “Sahab, ho gaya.” I look, though from a distance. Lo and behold, in that dirty little handi, along with the liquid salt of mercury (as my knowledge of chemistry tells me), is a blob of gold. Not the purest gold, but about 300 milligrammes, pure enough to bring a smile to Sunny’s face and add ₹900 to his kitty.

The nasty liquid is dumped into a receptacle and as soon as that little blob of gold cools down, Sunny begins rubbing it with some baking soda. He polishes it with all his might, until that tiny nugget shines. What’s gold without the glitter, he tells me, gripping the shiny ingot in his firm fist, his joy now abound.

“Diwali aa gayi,” says Sunny, jubilant at his haul. It’s not every day that the five-hour drudgery through the dirt and a life-threatening experiment turns into gold. “Stop by every day. Tum lucky ho.” This is the largest chunk he has laid his hands on for days.

Ahead lies the task of selling this ersatz gold. And not everyone likes gutter gold. Generations of ghamelalwallahs, he tells me, have come and gone. But a few have stepped inside the fancy jewellery stores at Zaveri Bazaar. “It’s the small resellers that sit outside the big shops, who buy from us.” But Sunny isn’t worried. He has a “good sheth” in mind for this. Plus, it’s Akshay Tritiya. The gods smile down on all gold sellers today, even if they’ve come from the gutter.