October 22, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf

Look at this pistol, it is gold-plated and it is a collector's item," said Shabbir Bandukwala as he put the weapon on the table so that I could take a closer look.

"Here is another replica of a century-old gun. Some people love to hang it on their walls as a showpiece," he adds as he takes another weapon out of a cupboard.

Bandukwala, proprietor of India Arms, dealers in arms, ammunition, and shooting requisites, has seen the best and the worst of times in his business.

As a teenager, he saw maharajas come to his shop and buy guns and bullets. But today business has fallen drastically and he runs it only for sentimental reasons.

"I used to come to this shop in my teens during college vacations and learnt the business tricks from my father," Bandukwala recalls. But those were the days when the privy purses [the privileges enjoyed by the former maharajas] existed in India and the different maharajas had money to spend for shikar (hunting). And there used to be so much rush to buy guns and ammunitions in our shop."

Bandukwala (left) recalls interacting with the maharaja of Jamnagar (in west Gujarat), the Siddhi family of Murud-Jinjira (along the coast of Maharashtra, south of Mumbai), the royal family of Kolhapur (in south Maharashtra), and many others in his teens.

"Those were the days. The maharajas would go out hunting for wild animals and they used to come during the vacations to buy guns with their family members. They never bothered about money and were spendthrifts. But as time passed, things started changing and going from bad to worse. Today, not a single maharaja comes to our shop," he laments.

But how did Shabbir get into the business?

It is an old story. Bandukwala's great-great-grandfather, Mohammad Ali Noorbhai, owned a wax business, but decided to change to selling gunpowder. Soon after, he started selling guns in his native town of Kapadvanj, near Anand, south of Ahmedabad. All this was more than 150 years ago, during the British Raj.

Noorbhai then decided to move to Bombay [now Mumbai]. He set up a shop near Mohammed Ali Road. Soon the tag of 'bandukwala' [literally, man of guns] was attached to Noorbhai's name, reflecting his trade in arms and ammunition. And as they say, the rest is history.

Interestingly, in Mumbai today, there are seven Bandukwalas who are in the business of selling licensed guns, and all of them are descendants of Noorbhai, including Shabbir!

But today the traditional business of selling licensed guns in Mumbai is in a bad phase because the number of people obtaining licences for guns is very low as compared to yesteryears. In Mumbai, the commissioner of police alone has the right to decide who can hold a gun licence for self-protection and only after receiving such a certificate is a person legally allowed to purchase a gun.

"It is a family business and only those who could run and manage are continuing today. Most of the others have shifted to some other businesses or are in service. I am running this business only for sentimental reasons and I am fortunate to survive although it is becoming more and more difficult to run the show," says Shabbir Bandukwala.

Meanwhile, Bandukwala takes out another gun, a muzzle-loading rifle, which, he says, was very popular when he entered the business. "It is called a muzzle-loading gun because it can be loaded from the front unlike other guns where the loading is done from the back. But with the passage of time, the popularity of muzzle-loading has faded," he explains.

He then goes on to display the imported revolvers. There is a revolver made by Webley & Scott of England, Smith & Wesson of the United States, Colt of the US, and the Indian revolver, made by the Government of India. "Mind you, all the imported guns are the ones which were made before 1986 as the Indian government banned the import of guns and revolvers after that," says Bandukwala.

The Indian guns are manufactured at Munger in Bihar, Jammu, Kanrut district in Assam, Kolkata, Kanpur, and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. Bandukwala often goes to these places as and when there is a requirement for particular guns.

Suddenly, a customer turns up and Bandukwala tells his assistant to attend to him. The assistant displays the different guns and pistols to the customer. The assistant then shows how to load the bullets and how to release and switch on the safety catch.

Bandukwala has to periodically update the customer list on who all have purchased a gun, and when, and send it to the police commissioner's office. He also has to ensure that the gun licences shown to him are not forged.

"The ancestors of many of the workers have been working with us for the last 150 years. Nothing has changed in this shop except the fact that business is not doing well. If you had come during the maharajas' time, we would have probably not have entertained you this leisurely," says Bandukwala.

Nevertheless, in spite of Bandukwala's complaints about business not being good, he has some high-profile customers, including cineaste and now Union Health Minister Shatrughan Sinha; and Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, son and nephew, respectively, of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Earlier, Bandukwala supplied guns to thespian Dilip Kumar and the late Guru Dutt. These celebrities had visited his shop to see the different arms before making their selection.

So how does he market his shop and products?

Smiles Bandukwala, "There is no need to market as my experience shows that those people who come to buy licensed guns move about with my existing customers. And all these people are from the elite class and need guns for their own security. So there is a chain and new customers are constantly added. But much depends on the police commissioner as he has the power to issue licences."

Asked whether he ever felt scared about his business or whether he received threats from underworld to sell guns to them, he shoots back, "Never! Why should I be scared of them? I am doing this traditional business for more than three decades and nothing has happened to me so far."

Photographs: Jewella Miranda

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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