Paperwork is frowned upon. Instead, this $40 billion economy runs on Post-it notes. When deals are made, the parties exchange squares of paper that mark only the date, participants, carats, and value of the merchandise. No other transaction traces exist. If a dealer cheats someone, he's kicked out of the circle forever and his debt is shifted to other family members. Their trustworthiness thus assured, the brokers fan out across the city, climbing the staircases of dozens of nondescript weathered buildings to deliver merchandise to the independent contractors who do the polishing.
Surat hosts more than 3,000 polishing companies large and small. Like most of the complexes, the Diamond World towers have lighter security than a strip mall, with a sole half-asleep guard leaning on a bamboo stick that is both weapon and crutch. Beyond this inattentive gatekeeper are hundreds of compact, dimly lit polishing rooms, where rows of teenage boys work 14-hour shifts, each grinding and shining about $10,000 in diamonds a day.
Ramesh Dhanjibhai and his cousin Kalpesh Mangukiya run two typical chop shops in Diamond World. Their workers earn about $1 for each of the 0.3-carat stones they polish, most of which will retail for about $1,000. The cousins process half a million dollars' worth of polished stones a month. Dhanjibhai told me that most local polishers have "no idea where the stones came from or where they're going, and we don't really care." Whether their merchandise is from Congo or Ghana, they export exclusively to the United States. "Our entire business is black market," Mangukiya beamed. "We need Kimberley Process documentation if we want to legally import diamonds ourselves. Once we get them here, we just throw the certificate away -- we don't need it anymore."
When Dhanjibhai's crew finishes the grinding, the stones begin the most dangerous part of their Indian saga -- the transport to Mumbai. They go via the angadias, a secretive community of couriers who hail from the faraway Mehsana district in northern Gujarat state. They're not much to look at: mostly middle-aged men with wrinkled collared shirts, knockoff Chinese suitcases, and ill-fitting slacks -- the kind of potbellied guys all over India nobody ever thinks twice about. It's a perfect disguise. From the smallest polisher to the biggest processing center, everyone counts on their delivery services across India, and that means the Gujarat Mail.
"The whole trip is scary. It's mentally very tough, and we don't sleep much," says Navrattambhai Patel, a senior angadia who goes on runs as a reserve agent when some of his 700 regulars can't. Eschewing other means of transportation means cheap rates; shipping $20,000 in diamonds by angadia costs only $2, and one person carries anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 in stones a night. Most angadia firms are small, family-based businesses. But to find the biggest, just wander down the hallway of burned-out light bulbs on the ground floor of Diamond World to the door with a haphazardly taped sheet of paper that reads "B.V.C."
Even the most hackneyed thriller novelist wouldn't dare dream up B.V.C. Logistics Private Limited. It's just too unbelievable. Out of a diminutive 200-square-foot office, Manisha Chinai claims to oversee the transport of an astonishing $5 billion in diamonds a year. B.V.C. is the most sophisticated of all angadia firms -- it bypasses the Mail in favor of a single armored vehicle ingeniously cobbled together from an old Mahindra pickup truck and some spare steel plates. Chinai's specialty is making deliveries for the larger firms that need multimillion-dollar deliveries on a weekly basis.
Those angadias who don't get the premium ride down south in B.V.C.'s makeshift Brink's truck are rounded up every night at midnight, save Sunday, by jeeps darting around the city with police escorts. Then they're unceremoniously dumped at the back entrance of the railroad station, where the couriers try to blend into the rest of the expectant crowd waiting for the train to Mumbai.