Jewelry District Swept Up : Poor Reap Gold From Dusty Streets of Calcutta
Early in the morning, as Calcutta’s Bowbazar red-light district settles down to sleep, a group of men leave their shanty homes and literally sweep the dusty streets in a never-ending search for gold.
Armed with brooms, sieves and aluminum bowls, they scour the narrow streets outside the dozens of jewelry workshops operating in Bowbazar alongside the district’s prostitutes.
The gold sweepers are from the 1,000-strong Neraya community, Muslims from the north who came to India’s largest city a century ago in search of work.
They found it on the streets of Bowbazar, searching for tiny specks of gold wafted into the dust by the wind or carried on the clothes of passing goldsmiths.
“For generations my family has been doing this,” said Abu Mohammed as he set out on his painstaking task.
“I quite enjoy the work, with its element of risk and luck.”
“You may think the amount of gold escaping this way must be tiny. But when hundreds of goldsmiths pass this way, it’s not,” said 70-year-old Tayeb Ali who has been in the gold-sweeping business for 60 years.
The pickings are richest just before Hindu festivals or months considered auspicious for marriages, when a lot of gold jewelry is prepared as gifts.
“Sometimes we make as much as $230 in a week during festivals,” said Tayeb.
For much of the time the work is non-productive drudgery.
“It’s a back-breaking job but we do not do it just to earn a living. Gold has a certain magic about it which always haunts us,” said Abu Mohammed.
His day begins just before dawn when he hurries into the narrow Bowbazar streets lined with crumbling, century-old buildings. His goal is to collect as much dust as possible before the competition moves in.
He sweeps until noon and then hauls off sacks full of dust to a large banyan tree nearby.
“The group meets here every afternoon to process the dust and separate out the gold,” he said.
First of all they minutely sift through the dust looking for anything which may be a speck of gold. The haul is then treated with a mercury compound that separates the gold from the dirt.
The result is sold back to goldsmiths, although it has to be further refined before they can turn it into jewelry.
“Most days are a waste of effort but the hope of getting a windfall eggs us on,” said Tayeb.
“The heavy monsoons are the worst for us. All the gold dust gets washed away and we can do nothing about it,” said Abu.
“But one gets addicted to this. We could easily find better jobs, but we don’t know if we would enjoy it so much.”
The Nerayas are confident their trade will endure.
“I don’t think we will ever lose this business,” Tayeb said.
“For as long as man’s hunger for gold lasts, these shops will go on throwing these little particles for us and we will live.”
But he added wistfully: “I have this constant dream of a road full of gold waiting for me. Maybe someday I’ll get it.”