The smuggler

Berjis Desai

1970. The high speed dhows (Arab boats) carrying contraband docked on a deserted coast of Daman. Fabrics, wrist watches, transistors, tape recorders, gold and silver from Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai were loaded onto waiting trucks. He sat in the jeep escorting the trucks to Bombay through octroi checkposts. Seeing him, none stopped the convoy in the middle of the night. After fulfilling his mission, he offered thanksgiving prayers at the local agiary in his hometown in South Gujarat. Import duty was 300% of the original price and smuggling was at its lucrative best. He worked for the infamous Sukur Narain Bakhia, a fisherman from Daman, who now stayed in an impregnable castle near the coastline. The tough Bawaji guaranteed safe passage from Daman to Bombay through his network of officials and policemen, including some senior ones belonging to his community, renowned for its honesty. Of course, he could not corrupt all and a dossier was building up on him.

1975. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and unleashed a preventive detention law called COFEPOSA (Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities) Act. Overnight, smugglers were arrested and thrown in jail, without any recourse to courts. No longer was it possible to game the system. Bakhia, along with his competitor, Lalloo Jogi and 21 others, were detained under COFEPOSA. The underworld was stunned. Then the government began to detain the lieutenants of the dons.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


The Parsi was prominently on this second list. The local policeman went to his home and forewarned him. Our anti-hero was unperturbed. "Only one request, my friend," he told the policeman, "Come and arrest me at 2:30 a.m., so that my neighbors are not embarrassed." He ordered his wife to pack his suitcase. At 1 a.m., his phone rang. It was the deputy collector of customs from Ahmedabad. "Were you in Boys’ Town Nasik boarding school in 1945?" he asked. "Yes," said the Parsi. "Is it correct that you were only supervising the transportation of the goods and nothing more?" "Yes," said the Parsi. "Will you swear on your god and forsake smuggling forever?" "Yes," said the Parsi. "I am sending a telex to the customs office cancelling your warrant. Tell your local man to get it," said his schoolmate.

At 4 a.m., the Parsi walked up to the dargah (shrine built over a grave) of a much revered pir (saint) near his house. Touching the colored sheet, he swore in the name of both Ahura Mazda and Allah to give up smuggling and alcohol.

1977. Gandhi lost the elections. In the presence of activist and politician Jayaprakash Narayan, the smuggler dons were released and swore to give up smuggling — an eyewash, of course. They knew, however, that the Parsi would never rejoin. Later, in their internecine disputes, they would call upon the Bawaji to mediate a settlement, which the latter did, without any expectation.

1980. At 1:30 a.m., he woke up his wife to say that the pir had appeared in his dream to warn him that there would be an income-tax raid in the morning. His wife told him to recite an Ashem Vohu and go back to sleep. He persisted. His wife and son reluctantly emptied the contents of the concealed safe into a large suitcase and caught the 5 a.m. mail train to Bombay. At 6:30 a.m., there was a raid. His pir had saved him again. He presided over the celebration of the urs (annual festival) of the pir with great pomp. Prominent quawwals like Jani Babu and Aziz Naza sang in praise of Allah and the fickleness of life. However, he also daily prayed at the local agiary.

1984. Strange phenomena were occurring in his locality. After sunset, fearful folks went indoors and shut their windows. A sinister looking, middle-aged woman walked the streets, whom the townspeople alleged was practising witchcraft. He laughed at them in disbelief. He sat defiantly on a chair in the middle of the deserted moholla (street) and saw the woman approaching. She looked at him, and he was violently thrown off the chair, witnessed some thing terribly unpleasant and was hospitalized with high fever for two weeks. A few weeks later, he prayed at the agiary, and intoned a rare, ancient Avestan nirang, before the approaching woman who first snarled at him, then cowered, and fell to the ground. His six-foot frame swooped on her, packed her in a gunny bag, and flung the bag nonchalantly on the busy highway.

1944. He was one of the first students to be enrolled at the newly opened boarding school called Boys’ Town by his disciplinarian father. The boy was not allowed to visit his mother even during the vacations, when he would be forced to circle the empty playground of the School on foot. For the slightest mischief, he was beaten black and blue by his landlord father who ultimately disinherited him. Penniless, he vowed that one day he would become very rich.



Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.