Daribha Lyndem, 31, was new at her job and still learning how to profile people when she and a woman inspector suspected something fishy. “A man had powdered gold into dust and mixed it with detergent powder,” she tells VICE. “It didn’t show up clearly in the [X-ray] machine but I had a feeling something was bizarre. The men in my team kept saying it was nothing till we realised the powder had gold. It was worth almost a kilo.”
She's the Assistant Commissioner in the Customs, Excise and Narcotics department of the IRS (Indian Revenue Service), currently posted at Mumbai International Airport, with an office right in front of the red customs channel. Lyndem’s job is to ensure that everyone coming through has declared their goods valued above Rs 50,000 (USD 700 approx). 16,000 passengers pass through the airport every night. That volume, in addition to India’s intense appetite for gold and the country's high import tax means that there’s no rest on the job for Lyndem and her team.
As a young woman, her challenges also include dealing with sexism—not only from passengers who undermine her authority but from co-workers too. “My colleague and I were told off by our boss today for our badassery, but this job requires it. It’s largely a boys’ club. I handle a team of 40, of which 90% are men, most of them older than me. It’s difficult to be taken seriously, also because I am from the North East and almost perceived to be an alien," she said. "Also, in my job, a well done-up woman is considered to be someone who might be frivolous. But I do love the job because it gives me a lot of leeway to give people an idea of the fact that women can be badasses too.”
We speak with her to find out more about navigating stereotypes, what’s high up on smugglers’ lists (hint: all that glitters), and whether she’s ever felt bad for someone she’s helped nab.
VICE: What kind of stuff gets smuggled in the most?
Daribha Lyndem: There’s a lot of gold concealment and smuggling. People will put it anywhere—in children’s toys, in TV sets, up their rectum, in a machinery part, a grinder—there’s something new all the time. This one time, a lady had a plastic scrunchie with metal detailing on it. I found it to be too heavy to be a scrunchie. The men thought it’s simply a rubber-band, but as a woman, I knew that these shouldn’t weigh that much. It turned out that the metal detailing was actually gold coated in a white/silver plating to fool the naked eye.
There are machines for screening but some things are not apparent there, especially if they come in powder or paste form, or as a foil. Once a guy tried smuggling in gold foil that was kept inside Maggi Masala and soup sachets. A lot of logic goes into determining what is what. But at the same time, you don’t want to unnecessarily harass passengers and start opening their bags unless you’re very certain there is something suspicious.
Is there a favourite when it comes to cases you’ve cracked?
There is one which involved a whole family—a man, his wife, sister-in-law and two young children. They were carrying almost 700 gms of gold, distributed across five scrunchies, some worn by the women and children, some in Tiger Balm and Dove cream, and some in two bottles of shampoo. Sometimes, they do this [using family members for the smuggle] to cover up so we don't profile them. We're less likely to assume the worst of a man travelling with his family, but it happens.
There was another case which my colleague had cracked, in which a guy had drilled a hole straight through a packet of biscuits without breaking a single biscuit, and rolled up large amounts of currency in that space. Paper doesn’t weigh much but it does come up in X-rays—you just have to be alert. This guy had rewrapped the biscuit pack, making it look super ordinary.
How tough are smugglers to deal with?
Dealing with smugglers is easier—as soon as they’re caught they’re very pliant. They just sit silently and don’t make a fuss. It’s the regular passengers who are difficult to deal with; they can be entitled, rude, arrogant. Navigating business class passengers or anyone who feels too hoity-toity to stand in a queue can be tough, because if they create a fuss and everyone’s attention gets diverted to them, unsavoury elements can slip through.
Do you ever feel sorry for the people you catch?
I do for some them, especially first-timers (offenders) and young people who might have dropped out of college and are paid to bring in things. I remember how one boy who had gone to South Africa had met someone there who paid for his whole trip and treated him like a king, and then asked him to carry back a bag for him. It looked like the bag just had clothes but it actually had Quaaludes (best remembered as the drug of choice in Wolf of Wall Street). It was hidden in the lining of the bag. We have sniffer dogs to detect these, and finding drugs leads to automatic arrest. The boy was just in a daze when it all happened.
Are there particular flights you are wary of?
Any flight from a country where gold is cheap—our country is crazy about gold. Sensitive flights come after 4 AM so all the could-be would-be smugglers come in then.
Have you ever had to get your hands dirty?
A lot of women put gold up their vaginas but since I am the boss, my staff doesn’t want me to do the dirty work. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty but haven’t had to. In some cases, we have to wait for them to eject it, and so, we give them water and food. Once, a man had swallowed some gold. So we had to keep feeding him and wait for him to poop it out. Another time, a man had shoved a kilo of gold up his butt.
How do you continue to deal with sexism at the workplace?
I have to negotiate a space where I’m a hardass but also approachable, whereas men don’t have to worry about these things. I have to worry about my image, so that I am not perceived as ‘too soft’. The airport intelligence unit is more specialised, and I would love to work with them but women rarely get picked for it, and that’s sad. They think it's a dirty job that women should not get exposed to, but their chauvinism is masked in chivalry.
Have you ever sneaked something in you’re not supposed to, while returning from your travels?
Nah, I am chickenshit. My husband is even more chickenshit that I am.
Do you ever enjoy going through other people’s belongings?
Putting your hand in bags means sometimes I will touch things I don’t like, like men’s underpants. But sometimes it’s fun, yes. I haven’t found anything exceptionally cool though; people are too vanilla.
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