It is past 1 am. While the rest of the city is sleeping, the winding by-lanes of Old Delhi come alive with Chitli Kabar, Matia Mahal and Ballimaran market remaining open throughout the night during the month of Ramzan. It seems as if the day has just started. The narrow lanes of the Walled City are now lined up with makeshift eateries on either side dishing out festive preparations ranging from the likes of sevaiyaan to kebabs and biryani.
The area around the Jama Masjid is bustling with activity and visitors jostle for space till the wee hours of the morning. Away from this festive chaos, a voice rings out in the air, “Rozdaaron, hoshiyar ho jaooo, sehri ka samay ho gaya hai”, awakening people for one last meal before the fast begins. During the holy month, sehri or suhoor is very important as the faithful have to refuel their body before their next meal which will only be post dawn, also known as iftar.
Sehar khaan or sehriwallahs is the term used for people who go around a locality to wake up its residents for the pre-dawn meal before the start of the dawn-to-dusk fast during Ramzan. This task is normally taken up by one of the residents from the locality. The job of town crier is rare but not new. It dates back to a time when there was no access to alarm clocks or mobile phones and needed someone who would ensure that people wake up on time. The remnants of this dying tradition still remain in some form in Old Delhi.
Mohammed Haneef is one such man who has been faithfully hitting the streets every Ramzan for the past 50 years. Holding a torch in one hand and a stick in another, Haneef chacha as he is fondly known as, is out on his daily mission. He starts off his daily round at 2 am, walking through the back lanes from Chandni Mahal to Golcha cinema, Daryaganj. On the map, this distance might be mere one kilometre, but Haneef goes to each house who has asked him to do so and makes sure that the faithful are awake in time for sehri. All this easily takes Haneef about a one-and-a-half hour on foot.
He has different ways of waking up rozedaars while shouting out their names every time. In some households, he knocks at the door, while for others, he keeps on ringing the bell and waits beneath their homes until he gets a response or the light turns on in one of the rooms.
Haneef is 65 now and manages to keep a brisk pace while making his way around Tiraha Behram Khan, where he lives with his family. He proudly tells that he hasn’t missed even a single day of his duty till now. “Come rain or shine, I have woken up people even during the curfew. But it is during summer, when I enjoy doing this the most,” said Haneef, who is determined to keep the practice alive as long as his health permits him.
Aamir, who has known Haneef chacha since he was a child, thinks that the role of a town-crier is very important in Ramzan, especially for students and people staying away from family. “If we don’t wake up on time then we will have to stay without food for 16-17 hours.”
Apart from giving wake-up calls, Mohammed Haneef earns his bread and butter by selling sweets and toffees for children during day-time. When asked about how he manages to do both during Ramzan, he is quick to retort, “What trouble? I love doing this”.
Haneef finishes his nightly round by 3:30 am and will now be heading back home to have his meal before the fasting begins. He stays with his wife in Chandni Mahal area and has a daughter Afreen, who is now married.
In the age of alarm clocks and mobiles, the centuries-old-tradition is slowly dying. The number of town-criers is dwindling. Earlier, every Muslim neighbourhood had one local man assigned for this task but now only a handful of them are left that too, only in Old Delhi. Despite technological advancement, many residents feel that this tradition has a special connection to Ramzan and has its own charm. Abu Sufiyan, who lives in Sui-Walan, feels that without town-criers, the holy month of Ramzan would be like any other day. “If they don’t turn up, it feels as if you are missing out something important. When I was studying in Chandigarh, I used to miss these midnight calls during Ramzan,”he said.