At 2.15 am, in the dead of the night, Abdul Gani Sheikh and his son Showkat Ahmad step out of their house in Tikina village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district — Sheikh with a drum slung around his neck and Showkat holding a solar lantern. Sheikh is the traditional ‘Sehar Khan’, whose job is to wake up people for sehri, the pre-dawn meal during the holy month of Ramzan.
But this Ramzan month is different. With daily encounters and military operations, South Kashmir has remained tense. The streets are usually deserted by early evening and few people step out unless there is an emergency.
Tikina village has no street lamps and Showkat’s solar lantern and Sheikh’s torch — held in place by the ropes on his drum — light up a patch of the mud road ahead of them. They have about an hour to ensure that around 450 households across Tikina, Shah Mohalla, Herpora, Aperpora, Banepora, Jamia Mohalla and Sontabug villages wake up in time for the sehri.
The first village after Tikina is Shah Mohalla. As they walk past the houses, Sheikh beats his drums and recites the Naat, verses in praise of Prophet Muhammad. Inside a few homes, some lights turn on. He stops outside one of the homes. “Ali Mohammed, wathew, sehar wout (Ali Mohammed, time to wake up for sehri),” he calls out in Kashmiri. Sheikh waits till the light comes on in one of the rooms.
“I don’t do this very often. I call out the names of only those people with whom I share a personnel relationship… Sometimes, I even knock on their doors,” he says.
By 2.45 am, Sheikh and Showkat have reached the neighbouring village of Benpora. In between smooth rolls of his drum, Sheikh talks about himself and his family. A cobbler who owns a small shop in the town, he lives with wife and son, while his two daughters are married.
Just then, Sheikh spots a shadow in the dark. “Shhh… it is a bear,” he whispers, pulling Showkat back by his elbow. After a few hesitant moments, Sheikh begins beating his drums again and slowly moves ahead. “Ahh… it’s only a dog,” he says, relieved as the light from the torch falls on the animal.
“It is tough to be a Sehar Khan in South Kashmir… can’t be done by one person. That’s why I get Showkat along. Recently, a neighbour told me that some people spotted a leopard in one of the lawns. He told me that when the animal heard the drums, it moved out,” he says.
But it’s not these encounters of the wild that have South Kashmir in their grip these days. Not a day passes without search operations, followed by encounters between militants and security personnel, and civilian protests.
Sheikh says his family had warned him before he decided to be Sehar Khan again. “They didn’t say don’t go. But they asked me to take care of myself and Showkat,” says Sheikh. However, he adds, so far this Ramzan, they haven’t come across any militant or Army personnel in the village — Tikina village has an Army camp located on the outskirts.
“Sometime last week, there was heavy firing in the area at night. We were worried for some time, but then the next morning, we woke up at the regular time and went out to do our job. We leave everything to God,” says Showkat, a Class 12 student who has been helping his father during the Ramzan months since he was 14.
“Before me, my uncle was the Sehar Khan. After me, I would want my son to take up this work for the sake of God,” says Sheikh, looking at his son.
Showkat nods, saying he would be happy to take up the task.
But with cellphones and alarm clocks to do the job, is theirs a dying tradition? “No,” says Sheikh. “One of these days, I was unwell and couldn’t go in the morning. When I went the next day, several people scolded me… maybe some of them couldn’t wake up in time for the sehri. I don’t think people rely on their phones; they wait for Sehar Khan.”
It’s now around 3 am and Sheikh and his son walk back home. “See, most homes now have their lights on. They have woken up,” he says.
Once home, father and son eat their sehri of rice and vegetable curry. Sheikh soon heads to a local mosque for morning prayers and then returns, where he will briefly catch up on his sleep. Over the last few days, he has stopped going to his shop as he has another Ramzan routine to follow — during the last few days of the holy month, every Sehar Khan visits households in the neighbourhood to collect alms. As he steps out around 11 am, Sheikh insists he never asks anyone for anything — “it’s their choice and wish”.
At Shah Mohalla, outside one of the homes where Sheikh has stopped, as the man of the house fills half of Sheikh’s cloth bag with rice, he says, “Sehar Khan is doing god’s work. He will surely earn rewards.”
Around 6.30 pm, Sheikh is back home, where the family breaks its fast with an iftar of dates. After dinner at 8 pm and another visit to the mosque, Sheikh is back home at 10 pm.
As he prepares to sleep, he says, “I don’t get to sleep much during Ramzan, but we are doing this for God. Hopefully, He will reward us,” he says.