My Vish Puri novels are set in India – and to me the real star of the books is India herself. In fact I don’t give a lot of thought to the plot, initially. My aim is to reveal this extraordinarily complex society as it is today and weave in as much cultural context as possible.
In my latest offering, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, Puri takes time off from chasing criminals to attend his young grandson’s mundan ceremony, the ritual shaving of a child’s hair, which is associated with his or her past life. Meanwhile Puri’s Mummy-ji, ever one to stick her nose into her son’s investigations, travels to the holy city of Haridwar to follow up her own lead in the main case – the poisoning of a Pakistani VIP. In Haridwar, she searches out hereditary genealogical record keepers who guard roomfuls of scrolls and ledgers containing names of family members dating back generations. Mummy also takes time to accompany Ritu Auntie to the banks of the Ganges River, where they disperse the ashes of her friend’s late husband into the holy waters.
But perhaps the most intriguing material I used to enrich the plot has to do with India’s secretive diamond couriers, the Angadias.
Their centre of operations is Surat in the western state of Gujarat, long a wealthy port and textile hub. The East India Company established a factory here in 1615. But over the past forty years, the descendants of diamond cutters who returned from East Africa at the turn of the last century, have cornered the world’s diamond cutting and polishing market. Approximately 90 percent of all raw diamonds mined around the globe are now processed in Gujarat, mostly in hot, dingy sweatshops in Surat.
And yet the stones don’t arrive here in a direct fashion, as you might expect. The city remains without an international airport (certain politicians backed by certain interest groups having reportedly ensured that proposed plans continue to flounder). Thus raw diamonds with a value of approximately nine billion dollars arrive in India every year and are off-loaded in Mumbai before being transported overland to Surat. Once they’ve been cut and polished into bright, sparkly stones, they go back the way they came for export to Antwerp and New York.
The usual international courier companies or their Indian counterparts don’t get a look-in, however. And there are no security firms or armoured vans involved. During their journey within India, the stones are entrusted to couriers posing as ordinary-looking men and women. Blending into the general population, they travel the 185 miles from Mumbai to Surat by train. Or is it bus? Or perhaps shared taxi?
Theories abound as to where they hide their packages. But some clue can be gleaned from the word Angadia itself, which is derived from Angi, a kind of vest with a pocket sewn into the back worn by the Bharwad tribal people of Gujarat.
How many stones are lost or stolen en route? Virtually none. Family ties – the Angadias are almost all Patels and hail from the state’s Mahasena District – ensure mutual trust. Or put another way, any courier trying to make off with stones probably wouldn’t get very far.
In the rare instances that diamonds do go missing, the Angadia agent is bound to reimburse the declared value of the stones.
Like Mumbai’s dabawallahs, who, despite being almost illiterate, deliver tens of thousands of packed lunches every day to the right addresses, Angadias are renowned for their reliability. But don’t expect any transparency when it comes to how they operate. When I tried talking to a number of alleged agents in Surat, they were tight-lipped.
‘No, no we don’t carry any diamonds,’ one told me despite the diamond merchant standing next to me who’d just handed the agent a small package and proceeded to fill out a kachhi chithhi, essentially a bill of transport signed by both parties.
I had better luck with a successful diamond cutter. We sat in his office with half-a-dozen of his co-workers. Each had a loupe fixed to his eye and was sorting small piles of finished stones. Through a window looking out onto the factory floor, I spied rows and rows of men working at lathes and drills with only fans to stave off the intense Indian summer heat.
‘These couriers have been around since Mughal times,’ he told me. ‘You’d never be able to identify them. One might dress like a travelling salesman. Or perhaps a widow… Nowadays they also carry a lot of other things like cash.’
‘Is any of this legal?’ I asked.
The owner just laughed. ‘Put it this way, sir, Angadias don’t suffer from government regulation,’ he said.
Indeed, in The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, Vish Puri describes the network as ‘an unparalleled parallel system.’
Just the kind of Indian phenomenon I can’t resist.
For more on Vish Puri’s India, visit www.vishpuri.com