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World & Nation

Dust washers in India sweep streets for flecks of gold

Like her mother and grandmother before her, Ganga Gohel, 80, crouches in a narrow alley, carefully working an 8-inch brush over the cracked concrete with gnarled hands, her back permanently bent after a lifetime on the job.

In a nation where thoroughfares are rarely clean, this twisted lane in the ancient walled city of Ahmadabad is spotless, at least temporarily, after she finishes.

“It is very strenuous work,” she said, her hair pulled back in a bun, her delicate features buried behind deep wrinkles.

Gohel isn’t a street cleaner. She’s a dhul dhoya, a dust washer. And not just any dirt. Although the streets in India aren’t exactly paved with gold, a few in Ahmadabad are at least flecked with it.

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Motivating her are the estimated 5,000 gold and silver shops in this western city. As the 40,000 workers from the shops come and go, flecks of gold fall from their hair and clothes, to be scooped up by Gohel and other dhul dhoyas. Some enterprising collectors even follow workers home, raiding their sewer pipes for the muck from their showers.

Since the age of 15, Gohel has been working this alley from late morning until dark, with Sundays off, a schedule driven by shop hours and the rhythm of the settling dust.

It’s hard, but at least she didn’t have to pick up her mother’s sideline: removing the burning coals and ashes from silver kilns, which she would crush and run through a sieve to capture the precious fragments. Now Gohel’s daughter Kasmeera, 35, is joining the family business, helping her mother collect waste on the same street.

Once she and her mother separate the gold-specked dirt from the betel nut wrappers, cow manure, stained newspapers and other trash, it’s sold for about $8 per bag.

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“People spit in the garbage and leave food scraps,” said Kasmeera, in a beige sari and black plastic slippers. “It’s disgusting.”

Kasmeera worries that her mother’s bent figure reflects her own future. In an effort to get ahead, she’s supplementing her income by trimming loose threads off bluejeans at a cent per pair, or $1.50 a day if she hustles.

“I’m concerned about what’s in store for me,” she said. “I want to do better. But I’m not sure it’s possible, at least in this life.”

Adding to Gohel and Kasmeera’s burden is their status as Dalits, or members of the so-called untouchable caste. Pedestrians have insulted them, bruised them and knocked them over, particularly Gohel with her tiny frame. But Gohel has carried on for 65 years, carefully guiding every last speck of dirt into her dustbin with practiced efficiency.

The pair are among 200 or so dhul dhoyas working this part of the gold district. Many families have cleaned the same street for generations, jealously guarding their turf against interlopers.

Gohel makes about $135 a month, Kasmeera slightly less. It’s dreary work. But Gohel and her husband, who died six years ago — “a drunkard who battered me every day, but at least he helped a bit” — raised two daughters and a son on the dust.

It’s been a constant struggle. Her daughter-in-law died and Kasmeera’s husband abandoned the family, leaving Gohel with five grandchildren to help raise in a tiny two-room house.

“There are a lot of mouths to feed,” she said. “Life’s been pretty much the same, pretty tough.”

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Nitesh Soni watched Gohel from his family-run Ambica Touch bullion shop on the alley.

“You try bending and sweeping the streets like her,” he said. “You’d feel the pain too.”

At Ambica Touch, jewelry makers belly up to the counter with thick wads of rupee notes, buying half an ounce here, an ounce there. As the shop workers slice off pieces from 1-kilogram gold bars with oversize cutters, small particles drop. Most are swept up, but microscopic bits make it to the street and into Gohel’s dustbin.

Two miles away, in the Gomtipur neighborhood, Abdul Wahid Ansari buys bags of gold-flecked dirt for his workshop, which is straight out of the Middle Ages except for the vats of Technicolor chemicals. Young men bend over 2,000-gallon water tanks, panning the dirt as coal fires roar in the unlighted room, emitting smoke through a hole in the roof.

The modern-day alchemist says he can tell at a glance how much gold a handful of dirt contains. The dirt is washed, mercury and nitric acid are added, and the mixture is “cooked” at a high temperature to separate the gold for melting back into bars or ingots.

“Our life is with the silver and gold,” he said through rotting teeth stained red from betel nut. “Let the copper be.”

Gohel denies that she’s ever found a sizable nugget in the dirt, although the crew at Ambica Touch is skeptical.

“Of course they hit the jackpot sometimes,” said Paresh Soni, Nitesh’s brother. “When I lose a piece, do you think I’ll get it back? This is India.”

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The dirt is most gold-laden during the peak October-to-February wedding season and just before the Hindu Diwali festival, when shops scrub their machines, walls and floors. At these times, dust prices can jump to $12 to $15 a bag, compared with $7 during monsoon season, when heavy runoff dilutes the mix.

The job of dhul dhoyas probably extends nearly as far back as gold craftsmanship in India, said Shekhar Chatterjee, a jewelry and textile design professor at the National Institute of Design in Ahmadabad.

“It’s a very old tradition, part of the Indian mentality to reuse even wastepaper,” he said.

Gold workers, who are believed to have settled in Ahmadabad shortly after the city was founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in 1411, were elemental in boosting the city’s reputation, and by the 1500s, Ahmadabad jewelry and gold-inlaid textiles were famous as far afield as Cairo and Beijing.

This glittering tradition lives on, with Ahmadabad handling an estimated 30% to 40% of the 918 tons of gold that India imports annually.

“Indians have a real emotional attachment to gold,” said Bababhai Soni, 65, Ambica Touch’s founder.

In recent years, machine-made jewelry has reduced wastage, leaving fewer specks in the dust. But customers still want complex jewelry patterns that machines can’t easily make.

“So as long as there is hand craftsmanship, there will be dhul dhoyas,” said Harshvardhan Choksi, president of a local merchants association.

As the shadows lengthen in the narrow alley, Gohel takes a rest on the bags of dirt she’s collected, her cracked, discolored feet tucked under a frayed pink sari.

“I’m still alive and able to walk because I keep active,” Gohel said.

She and her daughter reflect on life’s disparities, on how they scrounge in the dirt while rich, fat goldsmiths take home bars of the precious metal.

“Theirs sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars and ours sells for $8,” Gohel said with a sigh. “But it’s our living, our fate. If we didn’t do it, someone else would.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.


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