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City Faith – Ramzan for Coolies, Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station

The hardworking faithful.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Ramzan, the month of fasting, prompts culturally sensitive Delhiwallas to enroll for the guided food-in-the-night walks in the Mughal-era Walled City. For many of them, the festive lights and the pressing crowds suggest 30 days of celebration — fasting in the day, feasting in the night.

This is true only up to a point.

To Muslims, Ramzan is a sacred obligation that does not come with holidays. This applies to everyone, whether it’s those working in offices or the coolies at New Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station.

Named after the 14th century Sufi saint, the central Delhi station has 532 registered red-shirted porters, 300 of whom are Muslim — a majority of them are from Rajasthan. A large number of these porters fast daily, which means they don’t have even a sip of water from dawn to dusk. All day long, they walk up and down the platforms and stairs, often in searing heat, flagging as they carry heavy trunks and bags. A few of these porters are elderly.

The gentle Zahur Chacha, a diminutive bent man said to be the oldest at 70, fasts without interrupting his day job. And he has been doing this for years. The venerable Babu Bhai is 52 but his long, white beard makes him look older. He too is fasting. A respected figure, he is known to teach younger coolies the importance of good manners, especially when interacting with passengers.

One recent evening, Babu Bhai was, as usual, carrying luggage. It was 5pm, and he had last eaten more than 12 hours earlier. “I’m not exhausted,” he said. “God has given me power.”

Waiting for customers on a bench reserved for coolies, a number of relatively youthful porters who were also observing the fast talked of taking at least one short nap during the day in order to conserve energy. Some of the porters go to their single-room homes in nearby Sarai Kale Khan to rest; some just walk to the mosque beside the station entrance.

Designed like the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, the two-storey Dargah Wali Masjid has tombs of Sufi saints on the ground floor.

“Until a few years ago, it comprised a tin shed under which coolies offered prayers,” says Maulana Mohammed Yunus, the mosque imam since 2000. He says the building has come up in stages, with money donated by porters. “Some good Muslims from Nizamuddin also contributed,” says the imam, referring to the residential neighbourhood nearby.

In the evening, during iftar, coolies and cab drivers at the railway station gather at the mosque to break their fast. The money to buy fruits and snacks for this ritual is collected daily during the asr (prayer) held at 5.30pm. “Each day we collect about Rs.1,000,” says the imam. “That is enough to buy two bottles of Roohafza (sherbet), 2kg sugar, five dozen bananas, 4kg papaya, 3kg mango and 2kg pakoras (fritters) for about 100 people.”

One Thursday, the city got its first heavy monsoon shower, just ahead of the siren for iftar. The congregation, which usually assembles on the roof, was moved down. Helping himself to fruit, one porter could be overheard telling another, “The rain is God’s gift to us rozedaar (fast-keeping people). The heat will end and at least we will not be very thirsty during the remaining days of Ramzan.”

The work must go on













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