Karachi’s Whiskey Boss
My first meeting with Boss is surprisingly smooth and I decide that my initial anxiety was unnecessary. The fact that Boss will describe a business that makes millions of Rupees worth of profit per day does not keep him from being extremely frank with me. Probably not so difficult for a man with an aura of the young Bud Spencer. This candid attitude, however, is paired with a keenness on not giving away his name or the names of his coworkers.
“I don’t know how much is smuggled every month, but I know for sure that 8,000 bottles of ‘English’ whiskey are opened in Karachi every day.”
“That seems a bit much,” I say.
“Much?” Boss makes a disapproving sound with his tongue; a motion that stuck with me for a few weeks and that I unintentionally started to use as a sign of discontent, much to the annoyance of my friends.
“That is not much, yaar! Think how many people live in DHA or in these other Bungalow areas. These generator-log don’t drink the local stuff, they are rich and they want to show it.”
It is difficult to challenge Boss’s words and I find myself franticly nodding throughout the interview, even in situations when I do not approve or have no clue what his charming, but excessively explicative, Urdu means.
Everybody simply calls him Boss. A perfect nom de plume for an aspiring society like Karachi’s, where everyone mutually assigns one another with potential greatness. Yet, this Boss gained his title from a special incident, one of his friends and business partners tells me. In his youth, Boss had allegedly fought off an attack of 25 men with his bare hands. This outburst of raw masculinity overcame him one night at Sea View, where Boss had gone for some ice cream. When I hear the story, I can’t help myself but recall scenes from Watch Out We’re Mad (1974) including the typical slapping sound effects. Boss never disclosed his opponents’ motives and at that time I didn’t feel like I wanted to know.
A man in his fifties of impressive height, wearing army pants, a sweater, and a wrist watch designed not to be overlooked; sporting golden Aviator Ray Bans over an impressive mustache, Boss resembles a north Indian B-movie villain. A man with whom you want to share the same side in an argument.
Boss and I meet in a chai shop, incidentally on a day after a local political party had shut down the city. It’s Tuesday. The street is calm and only a few cars are seen on the road. People walk the streets as if they were enjoying their first day of a long summer vacation. Boys play cricket where yesterday the road was jammed by motorbikes, cars, and rickshaws. It’s never far in Karachi from afratafri to tafri. Sometimes it feels as if the city and its people need strikes to remind themselves that they live in a potential beach paradise. Karachi can be so soothing at times.
Telling from the nods and the conspirative hand gestures exchanged, Boss knows many people around. A wiry Pathan boy brings out chairs, which he sets up on a shadowy spot on the pavement. We sit down and Boss pulls some chars from his pocket, wrapped in cellophane. He looks at me and asks, “Kya puchna he?” I pull out my voice recorder and give him a questioning look. Boss nods in an avuncular way and repeats “Kya puchna he?”
“Most people have Chivas,” he explains. “Nobody drinks foreign beer here. It’s difficult to sell it and you need a bigger quantity for making a profit. Many simply do not have the space to store it. You get 12 bottles of whiskey for the same space as a pack of beer. Whiskey is also much easier to carry. We bring it, you drink it, you get rid of it. That’s all. If you carry a case around then people will see you with the big box and ask ‘b*******d kya lekar ja raha he?’ Sometimes I have a few college kids ordering Carlsberg beer. They come from the US or some European University and got into the habit of drinking beer. Our Pakistani brothers from here do not really do that. They drink to get hammered as quickly as possible. They don’t drink for taste.”
Boss has been in the business of smuggling foreign alcohol for over 25 years. Being a former sailor who kept good contacts with the marine métier makes him well equipped for his current job. Some years before, he used to supply Karachi’s black market with the help of friends inside various consulates, but currently he arranges orders coming from Dubai and India. He only deals in alcohol and has no business with drugs. “Too filthy” for an honest man like him, as he says. Of course, he pushes some chars around, but for Boss chars doesn’t count as drugs.
Boss might best be described as a middleman. Someone who buys alcohol in bigger quantities from smugglers and then sells it to his bandhe, who then distribute the bottles all over the city. A man with enough influence of not having to fear to talk to me, but also not too high up in the system for sitting on the sidewalk smoking pot. Most of Boss’s clients live in DHA, but, he says, he also caters to other places in Karachi. They shouldn’t be too far from his depot though.
The amount of alcohol Boss sells weekly depends on the supply and it is difficult to actually deliver a certain quantity on demand, he explains. People order Black Label or Chivas Regal, some might also pay a high price for a bottle of Lagavulin, but the supply depends on the availability, causing significant fluctuations in price. The biggest bulk comes from the Ajman port in the United Arab Emirates, an open cargo and, hence, a safe port which guarantees delivery without any investigations. From Ajman the maal is transported on different launches, which deliver the packages to different ports on the coast. The cargo is used all over Pakistan, but the biggest part stays in Karachi.
Boss is loquacious and does not seem to have any hesitation to have his voice recorded. At one point he stops and offers me a puff of his joint. I already feel paranoid just sitting next to him. The fact that we are sitting in the middle of the street does not help. I shake my head.
Boss flicks his tongue and throws his head slightly to one side. Damn infectious gesture.
“You should try it. It’s the stuff they export, not any kind of c*****a maal.”
“Hmmm…” At this point I am not sure anymore if rejecting his offer is one of my best ideas.
“This stuff goes till Europe!” he repeats.
“No, no thank you. I am here for work.”
The imported alcohol arrives from offshore deep sea stations, sometimes even 200 kilometres into the sea. From there the load is shifted onto fishing boats, which then reach different ports, some even close to Karachi’s sea view. For receiving the shipments, one needs to bribe the local influential tribes along the coast, or the official departments in the city – such as the police.
“Whoever comes in between the port and the place of delivery needs to get a share,” Boss adds with a grin. “A few bottles come over the Karachi airport too, but these are mainly for private use or a very special brand. It has become quite difficult to arrange big quantities over airports because of these f*****g security issues” he says.
Boss spots an acquaintance on the other side of the street and signals him to come over. While the man approaches, he whispers to me in English, “Not in front of him. You wait for five minutes.” Boss, too, has his borders. Almost an hour and two splifs later, Boss’s stoner friend leaves us again, and Boss suddenly explains to me that he needs to go home to see his “Missus” who is already waiting for him. I am invited, however, to his house this night to meet some of his friends.
Later that evening, I am waiting for my lift to Boss’s house. I was told to be ready at 11:00pm. At 11:45pm, I get a phone call from one of Boss’s friends, who tells me that he will leave soon to pick me up.
“Be down in the street in 20 minutes,” he says in English.
Thirty minutes later, I sit on a motorbike that is shaped like an Italian Vespa from the 70s. My driver, one of Boss’s bandhas, is in his fifties and says his name is Imran, but we both know that’s not true. His haircut tells the sad story of Karachi’s somnambulant barber caste and shows that alcohol smuggling is not excessively lucrative for everyone. Imran explains that many couriers have such bikes today as they provide the perfect storage room for the job. The bike has a container well-hidden underneath the handlebar, which can carry up to seven bottles of whiskey. He does home delivery in Karachi he says; for both, local and foreign alcohol. Imran has known Boss for over 30 years now and they have been doing business together for a long time. Imran, of course, has his own qissa to tell:
A few years earlier, when Balochistan had lower taxes on local alcohol than Sindh, Imran used to take his Italian hipster bike to the city of Hub, where he bought as many bottles of whiskey as he could fit into it and into an old backpack. Going twice or thrice a week, he made some good money and had surprisingly few contacts with the police on the way. One time, he recalls with a grin, a police car intercepted him. Leaving almost his whole stash behind, Imran was able to persuade the officers to let him go. Today, he has stopped going to Hub. The two provinces have more or less the same taxes now, so the long trip is not worth the effort anymore.
After almost an hour’s drive, during which we had to stop to buy some roti for Boss’s party, we arrive at a five-story building in a decent neighborhood of Karachi. Imran and I walk a few flights of stairs and reach the rooftop, which is filled with flower pots, a variety of dumbbells, and a few benches encircling a huge TV. A group of men sit and watch Bollywood music videos. Everyone has a glass whiskey in their hand. Someone is pumping iron in the back. The air smells sweet and heavy.
I am introduced as the brother of one of Boss’s old friends from his marine times. The party, consisting of 15 men, nods approvingly as Boss makes up an almost too detailed story about how he and my sailor brother met in a port in Turkey. I nod and smile, but keep my mouth shut hoping that Boss’s details won’t trigger too many questions from the mesmerised audience. As the evening progresses, Boss’s finds himself remembering many more adventures involving my imaginary brother. I do the math in my head and realise that my sibling would have to be at least 20 years older than me to make half of the stories believable. Boss lights up again and we hear breathtaking stories about a bar fight in Hamburg, an almost fatal, yet hilarious jetski accident in some unnamed Arab country and many, many brothel visits. My brother was a scallywag.
More and more I feel uncomfortable listening to the elaborate stories and I wonder how Boss is able to just crank them out in such a quantity. Particularly parts that include me and my adventures with Boss make me cringe and I begin hoping to get out of this party soon. Some men chip in and begin telling stories of their own brothers – who might or might not exist – and also engage in brothel tales and bar fight anecdotes – that either happened or did not happen. In the future, I will figure out that such kinds of Schrödinger’s tales are a part of the group’s charm and that everybody knew from the beginning that I have no naval ties and possibly not even a brother.
A few days after the party, I get a call and meet Boss again. We are on pretty friendly terms now and it occasionally happens that after a few glasses of whiskey, I get a hug and a bromantic compliment. Boss openly talks about his daily routine and promises to take me with him one day when he receives a delivery.
Ships from Ajman might carry as much as 16,000 to 22,000 packages, but some only carry 600 cartons of alcohol. The booking is done in Karachi through a fixer, who sends the order to Dubai. After the delivery has been taken inshore the load is put on trucks, which carry it to Karachi. Boss claims that every checkpoint on the way takes around Rs5,000 for letting the truck pass. Ships also land on the Balochistan coast. Business from the western side, however is in the hand of the Baloch “who can’t be trusted” as Boss adds. Asides the Baloch monopoly on the western route, this road also has more check points, which brings more problems.
Getting the loads through the checkpoints in Karachi requires contribution to the police. Certain rates are given either weekly or monthly in exchange of turning a blind eye to the carriers. Once the shipment has reached Karachi, the bottles are stored with a “wholesaler” who then sells bigger amounts to middlemen, like Boss. They then sell the bottles to a mainly young crowd, which distributes them on their motorbikes or in their cars all over the city.
We sit in Boss’s favourite cafe, or better on the pavement in front of it, which, I figured, serves as his “office” from where he makes and receives phone calls. A police car passes by. Boss waves at the three armed men sitting in the back. Two men wave back at him. I don’t know if he has ever seen the The Godfather, but I have the feeling in his mind Boss could see himself as the Vito Corleone of this lane. We sit silently. Sometimes people stop their motorbikes and exchange a few jokes (and puffs) with Boss and leave. The sun has set and in the last hour we had a pack of Marlboro Lights between us. When the phone rings, Boss finally says the words I have been waiting for.
“Maal a gaya, chalo ghumke vapas aenge”
Boss usually gets five to 10 boxes on an average day. Sometimes, however, he also gets bigger loads. Often within an afternoon Boss’s small storage room that, if necessary, could hold 300 boxes, is filled and emptied again when “his boys” come to distribute the supply over the city. Keti Bandar and Ibrahim Hyderi are the main lodging stations for alcohol that is destined for Karachi. A significant share, however, also comes over the border from India.
We sit in a huge but unpretentious car. Boss sits in front and directs the driver. He feeds me cigarettes in a fatherly attempt to calm my jumpiness. I have never seen the driver at any of the previous parties. His name is Joseph. After about a 10 minutes’ drive and a few phone calls, we stop at a petrol pump, where Boss gets out and makes another call. I observe him through the car’s tinted windows. Finally, Boss hands one of the young men working at the petrol pump a bundle of money and walks back to the car. He gives Joseph some directions and we leave. I ask him what had happened at the petrol pump, but I only earn a disapproving nod and so I stop asking. Later I learn that money is often not directly exchanged, but rather left with a trustworthy “friend.” Boys working at petrol pumps usually handle a lot of money; so, they do not appear conspicuous when dealing with large amounts.
After a 25-minute car ride, during which Boss repeatedly calls his contact, we reach a small dark lane at the end of which I see flickering lights and dozens of cars blocking the road. Boss gets another phone call. We need to change the location, the voice says, as this lane is crowded due to a wedding. Boss gets new directions, this time a bit closer to the sea. We turn into a small street somewhere in DHA 8. A car is parked in front of an empty lot in between some of Karachi’s most expensive houses. Compared to the grueling search and the long car drive, everything is done hastily now. Both, Boss and Joseph step out of the car. Boss shakes hands with the driver of, what I believe to be, an old Mehran (also with tinted windows). Joseph unloads a few cartons from the Mehran’s trunk. Less than a minute later, I find myself seated in between six or seven boxes of whiskey – all Chivas Regal – and we are back into the direction of Punjab Chourangi.
The car stops in front of a line of rickshaws. Boss hands me two more cigarettes and seats me in one of them. I understand that the part I can witness is over. He pays for my fare and tells the Rickshaw driver not to try anything funny.