In the Ramzan month, the alleys of Old Delhi resound with an age-old call at the break of dawn: “ Utho bhai, Sehri karlo” (Get up, brother. Have Sehri). This is the town crier— munaadi in Urdu—asking fellow Muslims to wake up, say their prayers, and have the first meal of the day before fasting starts.
In the era before smartphone alerts or even alarm clocks, town criers were needed to make sure that the devout woke up on time to have Sehri before the fasting began through the Ramzan month. As recently as in the 1980s, Old Delhi had numerous munaadis, who were given donations in cash or kind by grateful residents. Now, there are almost none left.
Mohammad Shakir, 49, is a second-generation sehriwala living in the old quarters of Delhi with his mother and sister. In the early hours of dawn every day of Ramzan, Shakir walks the empty streets of the localities set around Turkman Gate and Sheesh Mahal, cautious not to intrude into other munaadis’ zones. By day, Shakir is helper to a cook and delivers food in the bylanes of Old Delhi.
He has been a sehriwala since childhood, when he accompanied his father on his rounds. After his father’s death, he took up the tradition, even though he was not particularly fond of the job.
Dressed in kurta-pajama, with a pagri tied around his head, Shakir begins at around 2 am, armed with a thick stick and a megaphone. He calls out residents by their name as he knocks on their doors with his stick. He finishes his rounds by 3:30 am, when he returns home to have Sehri with his family.
According to Shakir, the “computer duniya” (computer world) is one of the reasons for the decline of sehriwalas. The custom, however, is very much alive in countries like Morocco and Egypt, where the munaadis still wear traditional costumes and walk through the neighbourhoods playing trumpets and beating drums. They are called nafar in Morocco, musarati in Egypt, and Seher Khan in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.
One of Shakir’s neighbours says about him, “I have seen his father since childhood. Sadly, we don’t appreciate his work as much as we should.”
But Shakir is usually tailed by a bevy of children. They try to mimic his voice and greet him enthusiastically with chants of “I love you”. Shakir replies in kind. It is this love from people, he says, which keeps him going.
Shivam Khanna is an independent photojournalist based in Delhi.