The Hero of the Heroin Addict


The Hero of the Heroin Addict

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Shamirbhai is, by definition, a crazy fucker.

I’m inside his shanty on Reay Road. It’s tiled and has a flat-screen hanging on one of its walls. According to my contact, Shamirbhai owns a couple of shanties that he rents out to people. He points to a youngish boy in the corner of the room and asks him to show me his arm. The boy rolls up his sleeve to reveal one of the most grotesque scars I have ever seen. “Phoda (abscess) ho gaya tha, marne wala tha ye, ilaaj karaya doctor se, aur aaj dekho.” The boy obediently rotates his arm and I see the light pink pits where the infected tissue was debrided, albeit sloppily. Abscesses are a major concern when you shoot dirty drugs intravenously.

Shamirbhai goes on, his chest puffing out of his short, skinny frame with exaggerated pride. “Inka koi saka nahi hota, sab hakaal dete hai inko,” he says in his characteristic booming voice, his Mumbai Hindi tinged by the remains of a Bengali accent. They have no one to look after them – he isn’t talking about this one boy, who has now left to fetch two cups of cutting chai. He is talking about all the boys he manages.

He is the keeper of the “gardullas” or addicts on Reay Road. He’s their front man, their protector, their salesman, their saviour. He sells whatever his “boys” bring him, for a fair price and after his commission, gives the rest to them. He’s also around if someone gives his boys trouble, or another group works on his boys’ turf. He even helps them out if they’re in need of medical attention.

Shamirbhai loads up a chillum, before offering it to me, “Aap sar karo.” I politely refuse, and he says, “Wazan kam karna hai toh garad piyo, aise ho jaoge,” winking slyly at my considerable bulk and how the narcotic will make me shed it. He then makes me want to slash myself as he points to a waif-thin child, no older than 16, whose eyes shine like glazed cinnamon rolls and whose arms are like baked ficelles. They’re even scored like one, healthy flesh interspersed with a pattern of scars from beatings and other accidents. The kid is standing there holding a ladies handbag, his offering to Shamirbhai, and his ticket to survival.

His boys spend their nights huddled below foot overbridges, next to open gutters or crouched close to the end of the platform. They’re gathered around a burning lighter with a bit of tin foil, like happy campers around a roaring bonfire in the great outdoors. They’re not smelling the roses. They’re chasing a treacherous high. A high that they will go to unimaginable lengths to attain – a high that will eventually kill them.

Gardullas are drug addicts on the lowest rung of the ladder. Their drug of choice is garad or smack, cheap brown heroin, a nasty drug that is cut with nastier shit which makes them (at least in their drug-addled brains) invincible. Gardullas are known for their utter fearlessness, they inhabit a void where there is no worry of consequences. They assault, steal, and molest with impunity. Gardulla lore is rife with stories about how they’ve leapt out of running trains after snatching a chain or a mobile phone, how they’ve survived the severest beatings from mobs of commuters, and how they’ve cheated death itself as they relentlessly chase the dragon.

His MO was to identify his marks at the railway platform while they waited for trains, and then, as they scrambled to enter, quickly grab a necklace or mangalsutra or bag and run like hell.

I’ve seen gardullas take a ceramic tile to the head and a tubelight to the back, and still manage to slash someone’s face with a blade concealed between their fingers. I’ve seen them fling their shit and piss at cops. The heroin has fried the pain receptors in their brains. But in the end, death always catches up.

I’ve seen it first-hand.

Pritam, the man who would grow up to be my friendly neighbourhood gardulla, was once a hardworking young man who used to unload sacks of grain at the Wadala Truck Terminal. Pritam was also a young man on the threshold of marriage. One day while walking down a ramp with a loaded sack on his back, the ramp went crack, and down went Pritam, and his load with a loud thwack. The prognosis was bleak, Pritam found himself up shit creek: In constant pain from his accident, he turned to charas to numb his physical pain. This near-fatal turn put Pritam into the ever-widening chasm of opiate addiction and he soon took to petty crime to fuel his habit, the drugs pushing him to desperation.

Then one day while wandering in a heroin-induced haze along Mumbai’s Harbour Line, looking for an easy mark, he found himself face-to-face with his once betrothed and her new groom on the late-night train. The need for cash overcame even his lingering love for her and he lunged at his former bride-to-be, trying to snatch her mangalsutra and chain, and in the scuffle got thrown off the train. The accident killed him.

This heroin that claims the lives of gardullas is in cheap and abundant supply, usually in the range of a few hundred rupees a gram. The money usually comes from the sale of stolen items, usually mobile phones and jewellery. Shamirbhai’s gardullas sell him brand new stolen iPhones for as little as 1,000 bucks. Shamirbhai sells them onward for upwards of ₹15,000, all the while using his drug-fuelled gardulla army to keep the goods coming. Shamirbhai, once a young, desperate gardulla himself, has now made a tidy business out of exploiting the giddy audacity and the utter lack of fear of repercussions that mark his community.

Shamirbhai has been to jail several times. He talks fondly about his first trip behind bars, his cold sunken eyes betraying a hint of nostalgia. That dingy cell that housed about 18 others, like himself, and stank of human shit and blood, felt like a “hawa mahal” compared to where he lived. But eventually he would find his way back to the streets, doing what he did best.

His MO was to identify his marks at the railway platform while they waited for trains, and then, as they scrambled to enter, quickly grab a necklace or mangalsutra or bag and run like hell. His marks were often already on the train by now, pushed on by the crowd behind them, and afraid to jump off a moving train. Nothing could stop Shamirbhai, neither commuters, nor cops who sometimes chased after him. He’d cross tracks with the litheness of a sprinter; he’d climb drain pipes and hide inside gutters.

Shamirbhai quickly distinguished himself from other gardullas, in the fact that he had started pulling off more robberies per day, all along the Harbour Line. When he tired of plain garad, he began sniffing paint thinner. He’d tried charas and ganja, but they didn’t compare to the dragon and good “afeem” was hard to find. Thanks to the H, he began to orchestrate more elaborate thefts which included multiple people robbing others on the same train.

But now he’s left those edgy days behind. He’s done his time on the streets but he’s now grown used to his new life in the eastern suburbs with two wives and a little daughter. His job now is to make sure this crew of five young boys do the same.

He’s sworn off the drug, clean, save for the occasional chillum. He lives well and sleeps easy. In his mind, his business is not exploitation. It is humane, it has a grand purpose. He’s protector and benefactor of his gang. His delusion is complete.

Shamirbhai is, by definition, a crazy fucker.