Diamonds and Curry

Bored and trying to find some Indian food during a business trip, I met Chimanbhai Patel at the Murugan. Readers would naturally assume that I was somewhere in Chennai or some other Tamil town, but well, it was many thousand miles away, in the picturesque canal city of Amsterdam. It was and is not a vegetarian or south Indian restaurant, but a Punjabi restaurant. Located on Rozengracht, it is close to the famous canals and in the tourist district. The hotel itself was a little garish as most Indian restaurants places overseas are, usually, with a bit of red wallpaper on the walls and dim lighting…with Kingfisher beer proudly on offer.

It was then that I chanced upon Chimanbhai who was there for some food as well. Though it was bright and sunny outside, the time was dinner time, about 7PM, and there were nobody at the Murugan except for the manager /owner - a Punjabi lady and us. She appeared to know Patel, I did not, but soon enough he struck up a conversation. I was looking at both of them forming my own impressions in the meantime. Patel was a short, stout, darkish guy with unkempt hair, slicked to a side and a hair line moustache. He wore metal rimmed glasses and was dressed shabbily. A shirt of obvious Indian origin, tailored many years ago showed the paunch that had come about much later at the tighter fitting midriff where the button was furiously wrestling with the button hole for freedom. The paunch rested over a low slung pair of bespoke trousers, tere-cotton, Raymonds 70’s vintage and which was once black. The shoes had not seen polish for many a month or year. But Patel had one thing going for him, a cheerful countenance and a ready smile, plus a booming voice. I thought, well here was a classic Desi, still stuck in a time warp, no improvement even after he landed up in Amstrerdam…the Sardarni, however was just the opposite, well dressed, in a silk Salwar Kameez, she was gracefully attired, wearing practical jewelry, coffered hair, straight posture and a confident look in her face. Obviously she knew how to run the restaurant and her family,and I thought..

It was the Sardarni who told me why and how the Punjabi restaurant got this name, a name that many old timers of Amsterdam recognized. Pundit Nehru gifted an elephant named Murugan (actually the children of Amsterdam requested him for one) to the city and it soon became a beloved animal in the zoo. Children loved it, so did the general populace. Murgan soon became synonymous with India and well, our Sardarji quickly pounced on the idea of naming his new restaurant Murugan. I am not sure if it really helped, seeing only the two of us in the 15 table restaurant for dinner. But wanting good food and not to upset the owner, I did not ask the stupid question.

Patel had been looking at me for a while, and soon he started the opening gambit. Patel was an avid talker, seeing that I was from India, he got down to the basics of people introduction amongst us Indians in rapid ‘machine gun fire’ fashion…. Indian, Where are you from, Do you speak Hindi/Gujarati ….You live here? Are you permanent resident, ah! Vijitor? What is your name? Which company you work for? You are manager? Making good money?

Having got reasonable answers and having determined that I would be harmless to him , he launched into his life story as many lonely Desi’s abroad are prone to, especially on a chilly, fall season evening when everybody else is into their third or fourth drink elsewhere in Amsterdam, trying to square up their lay for the evening...

His travails were pretty interesting – hailing from Surat, many years ago he had started as a diamond cutter in his uncle’s shop. It was eventually a big mistake while cleaving a diamond, that he got chucked out. However hailing from a decent family, he then joined the couriers between Bombay & Surat - the Angadia’s. It was a harrowing time for him, carrying Crores worth of diamonds, looking non-descript & traveling with these riches in second class compartments. Again it was a mistake that made him lose his job. Fortunately it was a very small industrial diamond consignment and as I expected, the bag under his head was taken away by somebody while he slipped into deep sleep. He got kicked out again from the business though the strong arm of the family found the stolen cachet pretty soon. Not losing hope, he convinced another uncle to get him across to Holland and for the past few years he has been a Dutch man, lonely like Murugan the elephant. Even though there were plenty of rich Indians around there, in the hustle bustle of Diamond business in Amsterdam, he was quite a loner and floundering close to the lower rungs of the personnel development ladder.

Patel told me more about Murugan and he told me quite a bit about the diamond business and Angadia’s. As the evening started to get dark and it was time for me to get back and get ready for the next days seminar, I had to say goodbye to the man of the evening.

I never met Patel again…. He remains forever lost amongst the many millions of Patel’s worldwide (Patel BTW ranks second to Singh in Indian family names & foremost in Britain & USA amongst Indians)

Ah well, one thing was clear, there was at least one other Malabari in Amsterdam that day, you see, as it turned out Murgan the elephant was a Malabari (This was 1989).

Murugan (born 23-1-53) from Wynad - Kerala, was presented to the children of the Dutch capital by India's first Prime Minister Pundit Nehru on 25 -11-54. Since his arrival in 1954, the Asian elephant quickly became a central attraction at ‘Artis’ and his biography, edited by zoo director Maarten Frankenhuis, was published in April 2003 to celebrate his turning 50 and becoming the oldest male elephant in Europe. The only thing was that as he was brought in as a lone baby, he never learnt how to mate, and he remained a sad bachelor all his life. The inability to get him to mate led staff to the innovative, but ultimately fruitless, approach of hanging a photograph of a "naked elephant" in his enclosure, ANP reported. Murugan was a mischievous elephant, spraying the public with water, stealing stuff from shops while being taken for a walk, breaking into underground sewer pipes etc. Murugan, ailing towards the end, was eventually put to sleep, on Tuesday June 4, 2003.

A little bit about Angadia’s - Surat has no airport. So, diamonds cannot be exported directly out of the city. Buyers, therefore, fly into Mumbai from where 99 per cent of all exports take place. Surat’s Rs 35,000-crore diamond trade would come to a halt but for these Angadias. They perfected the delivery system much before India heard of couriers. The Angadias carry Rs 100-crore worth of diamonds every day with a guarantee to pay back the entire value of the consignment if it is lost in transit . Angadias are the reason the diamond merchants of Surat have a competitive advantage in the Industry over anyone cause they make the transport costs so low. Courier costs for diamonds are so high that courier companies are not considered. An Angadia will board a 2nd class compartment in a 'Flying Rani' -- almost a local train from Bombay to Surat carrying diamonds worth crores. As per the latest figures, 11 out of every 12 diamonds worn by the world are cut and finished in Surat. No wonder, the Angadias always have their hands full.. Transporting what is considered priceless; Angadias of Gujarat today carry 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds. Between Surat and Mumbai, the specialised diamond couriers take the stones through the darkness of the night in cars, lorries or by trains. Their promise: Safe delivery.

While on the subject make sure you see ‘Blood diamond’ some time or the other – a great movie with Leonardo DiCaprio & Djimon Hounsou playing great roles in a fast moving story.

And one more thing – Listen to ‘Diamonds and rust’ by Joan Baez


Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Interesting....many indians living abraod are not always software engineers as we falsely assume...there are all kinds of immigrants. If you stop by to listen to their stories, you can learn amazing things...I wonder how they sustain themsleves like that.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

From the line that described Murugan as a Punjabi restaurant, I was hooked. Great post as usual.

It's amazing how desis (Gujaratis) have grown to dominate the international diamond trade.

Desis and Israelis.


Happy Kitten said...

Wow! what a narration!

And how many cities r left for your exploration?

diyadear said...

gr8 post.. it was interesting to read abt murugan the restaurant n the elephant :) N abt diamonds too, that was very informative.. if there is an award for "most informative blog' i will definitely present it to u :)

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy all your blogs .The one which sticks in my mind is the train journey and was thrilled to read part 2.Looking forward to more of your stories.

Narendra shenoy said...

Delightful! Life is so full of interesting people and places. One just has to recognize them, as you did.

I have a friend in the diamond trade. A Gujarathi, he lives and eats like the rest of us. He just happens to deal in 8 figure merchandise, thats all.

And he told me an interesting thing about the angadias. They charge on the basis of consignment value. Some people try to shortchange them every now and then by undervaluing the consignment and in effect paying them less than their due. Well, these guys are also good appraisers of diamonds and if they latch on to the fact that the consignment is being undervalued, they will calmly hand over the value declared to the addressee, saying that the consignment was lost. No appeal!

Maddy said...

Lakshmi - It is just that they are not challenged, they survive at the bottom rungs, which is enough for sustenance.

BPSK - That is an interesting question how & why Gujjus - hv to find out myself!!

Happy kitten - plenty more - I have been to abt 30 countries, so plenty to go!!

Diya - Actually i had planned to cover a lot more on diamonds as such like what is cleaving etc, but cut it all off..

Narendra - That was very interesting, honour among..wont complete it..

Priya said...

"Diamonds and Rust"- thanks!

Maddy said...

So Priya - so did u listen to baez??