Wake up, Delhi: Town crier gives voice to a fading Ramzan tradition
Nawabuddin, the oldest town crier of Delhi’s Walled City, roams the streets at night during Ramzan to wake devotees for the pre-dawn meal and to reconnect with his neighbours and the community.
At 2.30 am, more than two dozen two-wheelers have been pushed aside to make space for a cricket match being played under halogen floodlights in a boundaried compound in Old Delhi’s Sheesh Mahal area. Its audience: women from balconies of cramped flats overlooking the compound. And some street dogs. The match will continue for the next one hour but break as the boys retreat for sehri (pre-dawn meal) followed by namaaz.
Nawabuddin, 75, or ‘Peer ji’ doesn’t intend to acknowledge the game, or the young men performing stunts on motorbikes in the next street, the overcrowded tea stalls, or the flea market that is still serving its last customers.
For him to do his job as a town crier— that of waking people up for sehri in the month of Ramzan— he has to indulge in a minor self-delusion, be oblivious to the fact that the Walled City is actually awake.
Wearing a white pathani suit, skull cap and a keffiyeh spread across his left shoulder, all Peer ji can see in the darkness is a maze of match-box like buildings. He limps to each structure, carrying a wooden stick which he lifts to bang on the doors. “Rozedarooo, uth jao (Those fasting, awake),” his hoarse, throaty call encircles the street.
Peer ji is perhaps the last generation of Old Delhi’s town criers. Intrinsic to Muslim culture around the world, people like him are known by various titles –– Nafar (in Morocco), Musarati ( Egypt), Hil hiwai (UAE) and Seher Khan (Srinagar). In most of these regions, they roam the neighbourhood donning traditional attire, blowing trumpets or beating drums to draw people’s attention. In Delhi’s Walled City, they don’t have any such name and they don’t carry musical instruments.
Peer ji knows the occupants of most houses by name or profession. “Doctor sahab”…“Master ji”… “Vakeel sahab,” he calls out. Standing beneath tenements in closed alleys, he positions himself in certain areas that are most likely to echo his call, rather than go to each house.
Who is awake at this hour? “The men are either in deep sleep or are idling away their time when I do the rounds. It is the women who usually pray at this time,” he says, making his way through the labyrinth of passages. Men hardly respond to his call, he says. But those who do, are usually not welcoming. “You don’t have to be so loud. Kids are sleeping,” shouts back a voice, leaving Peer ji despondent for a moment.
“That was Rameez tailor’s son. As a child, he used to be very fond of me. Now he is all grown up and talks back to me. Perhaps he didn’t get adequate sleep,” says Peer ji with a grimace, murmuring to himself. By 2:45 am, he breaks for a quick tea at a makeshift shop. He notices that someone is pulling his shirt. It’s a little boy. “Aap uthane waaley hain na? (You wake people up, don’t you?),” he inquires. “Yes, my son,” says Peer ji, happy with the recognition. “Everyone in the locality knows me. No other profession would have given me such popularity,” he says. Those who acknowledge his efforts, reward him with cash and delicacies on Eid.
Mahtab Rahi, Peer ji’s neighbour, greets him next. “I have seen him since my childhood. Every passing year, the job of people like him become irrelevant. Still, undeterred by such factors, he is offering his service in a selfless manner. It is unfortunate that we don’t value him as much as we should,” says Rahi.
Peer ji’s job begins at 2 am, but he hardly sleeps post dinner. He spends his time at a neighbourhood mobile recharge shop. After midnight, he goes home for tea, and collects his stick and torch before leaving.
BECOMING PEER JI
Peer ji faces no competition, compared to 40 years ago, when he first began to volunteer for the task. Every Muslim neighbourhood used to have one man designated for this duty. There are, at present, only three left in Old Delhi.
At night, Peer ji would encounter various groups of hymn singers carrying lanterns; each group visited a different locality each day. They are not found anymore. “While the neighbourhood people would tip me only on Eid, the singers were paid each time they ventured out. Now they are a rare sight. Most of them have died,” he says.
As a young lad, Peer ji would spend time with his uncle who was a peer or spiritual guide to many in the neighbourhood. (The family association got him the title, Peer Ji.) He was a 20-year-old vegetable vendor when Mohammad Umar, the town crier in his locality, died. People requested him to carry forward the responsibility because he would be awake early in the morning due to his trade. None of his three sons are inclined to take up the job after him.
“It is alright. Today, people want to invest their time and energy only when they see monetary returns. People of my generation did a lot of things simply for sawaab (spiritual reward),” he says. He says he never pushed his sons though. “This task has its own complexities. One may encounter thieves on the streets. One also has to be wary of households in which only women live and consider their privacy. I don’t want my sons to land in trouble,” he says. Although the job seems simple, the town crier does follow a protocol. For instance, Peer ji waits beneath the house of heavy sleepers, till they respond to his call. He has to ensure not to intrude into another town crier’s area. And he never calls out the names of those who are dead even if theirs was the name he would call out earlier. “You never know, family members may get emotional,” he explains.
To make sure that he does not miss his duty, he avoids consuming oily snacks and chilled water, during Ramzan. Around five years ago, during Ramzan, he had a sore throat, so he took his son-in-law with him for the rounds so that he could call out.
By 3.15 am, having covered multiple lanes on more than a 2- km-long stretch, Peer ji heads back home. His wife and sons await him with the sehri platter — buff curry, rusk and tea.
Peer ji is well aware that every passing year, with people using clocks and mobile phones to set alarms, his job is becoming obsolete. “They will realise my importance once I am gone. Yahi duniya ka dastoor hai (This is the way of the world),” he says. It is time for the morning prayers. From the neighbourhood mosque, the muezzin is calling.
The article first appeared in Hindustan Times