With swollen, blackened hands and a stuffy nose, Rashid Beg tries to negotiate with Kumar bhai. He wants Rs 500 for spending a day polishing the butt of Kumar’s .315 Indian rifle, even willing to fix its unusually hard recoil. But Kumar wants a Rs 100 back. They’re old friends, and so is the scene. It ends like it always does: With Beg giving back 100 bucks, because he has to run to his post-lunch azaan.
Beg is one of the many armourers in Kanpur’s Gun Bazaar. He’s at the bottom rung of the fiscal human pyramid of the weapons business—so much so that even his establishment is tucked in behind the sex appeal of larger gun dealerships in the market, ghettoed from the people he works with in dingy and difficult-to-navigate lanes.
The Gun Bazaar plays host to Uttar Pradesh’s firearm fetish. The state accounts for over a third of the gun licenses issued in India, and as of 2015, also accounted for 45% of all illegal weapons seized in India. It’s so messed up, that common citizens have more guns than police personnel. Many of these weapons are bought at Kanpur’s famed Gun Bazaar.
“When I opened my eyes, this workshop was the first thing I saw,” he told me when we met him later in the evening. The workshop was licensed to his grandfather in 1979, which transferred to him in 2009. He’s been running it since 1995, paying Rs 300 as rent per month. His father too spent his life working as an armourer, as did his grandfather, who learnt the biz from his grandfather in a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghizapur at the turn of the 20th century.
“Aaj kal bahut sannata chal raha hai kaam ka (There isn’t a lot of work these days) because Uttar Pradesh stopped issuing gun licenses years ago,” Beg lamented, while telling us how his mother has been paralysed since a few months. It was for her treatment that he borrowed money from his relatives, since his monthly income of Rs 18,000 wasn’t enough. “Earlier people used to hunt a lot. Now all that is gone. In sports too, the demand has reduced. Shooting has grown as a sport and become more expensive, and people now import guns, and get fancy repairs,” he added.
The repairs that Beg does are only of old rifles and pistols: Fixing, polishing their butts (sometimes carving too if they’re wooden and broken), fixing their recoil, and unmaking a gun if it’s misfiring, or not firing at all. His customers are private security guards, the UP police home guard, and the rare private gun owner. Sometimes, when the fancy dealers nearby get antiques that need repair or polish (to be resold), Beg’s services are required for restoration.
Down the road from Rashid Beg’s joint is 38-year-old Rafiq Beg’s (they’re not related) more modest workshop, which doesn’t get any dealer business. “Aaj kal khaane ke laale padhe hue hain (It’s a struggle to even eat these days). No new licenses are being issued and our situation is getting worse by the day. It’s become difficult to earn even Rs 15,000 [monthly] now,” he told me.
The second Beg was putting back together a 12-gauge bore shotgun, fixating on its barrel. “I started coming to this shop when I was 10. I liked watching my father work. I never liked working myself, but really liked watching my father.”
Now he’s working at the same place as his father (and two more generations before him), as the main breadwinner for a family of eight which is about to expand. “My two older brothers got married first, then we married off my two older sisters,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to get married? My mother looked at a girl last week for me,” he added.
As the afternoon progressed, I noticed some empty cartridges on the floor. We asked him if we could take a picture. He said he won’t hold any as they were from a gun he tested near ‘Gangaji’. “Do you know that the UP government has promised to issue gun licenses again?” I asked.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he shot back, handing over the blown up bullet.
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