The town criers who crisscross neighbourhoods, waking up Muslims for dawn prayers, have faced their greatest threat: the mobile phone alarm.
For nearly 60 years, Mohammed Shafiq has braved New Delhi’s hot temperatures, a bad knee and evil spirits to wake up his neighbours for morning prayers and a final meal before sunrise during the holy month of Ramadan.
But nothing prepared him for the rise of New Delhi’s electricity grid and its many mobile phones.
The 68-year old Shafiq is known here as a town crier. The job has been made gradually obsolete by the arrival decades ago of the city’s electricity supply and recent improvements to the grid, powering up smartphones throughout the night and their alarm clocks that wake people up for prayer.
Shafiq’s sense of religious duty compels him to soldier on, adding his special, personalised touch, he said. He prefers to wake up neighbours by shouting out their names, rather than leave them to the clanging of alarm clocks.
From a cramped one-room apartment, Shafiq explained the hazards of the job — including fending off those evil spirits, a headless man and a beautiful vampire — as he sat on the floor, the walls painted a bubblegum pink. His shock of white hair burst out in tufts from a black skullcap adorned with rhinestones and sequins from every hue of a neon-coloured rainbow, his protruding belly covered by a mustard-yellow tunic.
This year will be Shafiq’s first making the rounds alone. His brother used to make the rounds with him but he died eight months ago. His son decided he wouldn’t carry on the tradition, he recalled as his wife looked on solemnly.
In his neighbourhood of Old Delhi — the original city centre of the capital, New Delhi — Shafiq was once one of dozens of other town criers servicing thousands of homes, each assigned a zone. Today he is one of a handful.
“As children working with my father we covered 70 lanes, hundreds of houses,” he said. “Today, my bad knees don’t allow me to do more than four lanes. It’s lonely work and when I go, the tradition will die, too.”
He starts his duties at 2.30am, armed with the verses he has memorised from the Quran to ward off the evil spirits and a stick for the wild dogs.
Traversing Old Delhi’s windy, narrow alleyways one recent morning, underneath a canopy of exposed electricity wires and a tangle of thick, fibre optic internet cables, Shafiq relentlessly rang — and kept ringing — neighbours’ doorbells and banged on metal doors with a wrinkled fist.
“Those who are fasting, wake up! Nassim, wake up!” he yelled, calling a neighbour by name.
“All the neighbours, front and back, wake up! It’s the night for prayers!”
His wails reverberated along the alleyway.
A gaggle of children emerged on the street mocking him. “It’s the night for prayers!” they mimicked, before lining up to shake his hand.
The holy month of Ramadan marks the start of the Prophet Mohammed’s Quranic revelations from God, one of the five pillars of Islam, an obligation the devout must fulfil.
In much of the Middle East, Shafiq’s job is called “the suhoor drummer” or “musharati,” and the waking up of the neighbourhood is done not with the incessant ringing of doorbells as in New Delhi, but with a large drum. The musharati call for the devout to wake up, eat their suhoor — a predawn meal — and perform prayers.
But that tradition, too, is dying, replaced by reliable alarm clocks or the rise of megacities, making the door-to-door wakeup call impossible as individual homes make way for high-rise apartments.
I’ve seen things that would scare most, but I recite the suras, and they go away.
A lot has changed since Shafiq began making the rounds with his father and brothers when he was 10. Troupes of Quran-memorisers once walked these alleyways reciting verses from their holy book. But people became fatigued with their expectation of nightly alms and stopped giving.
Electricity has also transformed Old Delhi’s peaceful but eerily quiet streets into a bustling jumble of night markets. Under the glare of bare light bulbs, shoppers buy greasy fried chicken and juice from stalls and purchase gifts for loved ones or groceries for the home.
Electricity, Shafiq grumbled, has meant not just the death of his work, but of the sacrifices expected of all Muslims during Ramadan.
With a constant power source, Muslims have shifted their hours. They sleep in the day and move around at night, allowing them to skirt the expected struggle: to abstain from food and drink during daylight.
Shafiq’s work — as a volunteer, he stressed — means the solace he once found crisscrossing the winding, quiet alleyways is now an exercise in dodging screeching motorbikes and boys playing cricket in the streets, a festive atmosphere that he finds less than holy.
The streets quiet down as he finishes his rounds and walks home. Vendors and families rush back to perform their prayers and eat the last meal they can before the sun emerges.
And that is when he gets the most trouble from the evil spirits.
A beautiful woman waits for him on dark street corners, her anklets adorned with bells that jingle merrily, until you notice that her feet are reversed and she speaks through her nose, he explained.
“I’ve seen things that would scare most, but I recite the suras, and they go away,” Shafiq said, referring to chapters in the Quran. “But that woman! She is made beautiful so men look at her, allowing her to suck their blood from her eyes.”
As Shafiq walked toward his home, down an alley with a canopy of colourful paper lanterns and silver and gold metallic streamers, he continued to cry out to the remaining houses. It was now just after 3am, but the temperatures were stubbornly high and Shafiq was drenched with sweat and wheezing from the guttural cries he had been emitting nonstop.
He walked by a bunch of young men, lounging on benches and the seats of their idle motorbikes. They greeted Shafiq respectfully.
“We’ve seen him since our childhood, so we have an attachment to him,” said Mohammed Kashif, 23. “He’s not just an alarm on our phone.”
When asked why his generation wasn’t interested in keeping alive the tradition and taking the reins from Shafiq, he shrugged.
“It’s a bit embarrassing to go around, yelling at people to wake up,” Kashif said. “People now have alarms on their phones.”
As if on cue, the nearby mosque’s speakers blared a deafening, elongated wail, similar to the alarm that once reverberated across London during the blitz in World War II, to warn citizens to take cover under enemy bombardment.
“And now we also have that,” Kashif said, wincing with the ear-splitting noise.
He then went home to eat and pray.