Mission Delhi – Munaf Alam, Chitli Qabar Chowk
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
You’ll always find him alone. Always silent. And he is seen every evening at Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar Chowk, which is otherwise so noisy, and so hyperactive, teeming with shoppers, idlers, hawkers, florists, kebab wallas, fish mongers, rickshaw pullers, and labourers from early morning to late into the night.
Munaf Alam, with his black mask slumped under his chin, is the only island of stillness in this ocean of chaos and confusion.
He’s a balloon seller, and has been hawking balloons in the square for six years. “I come here daily, around six in the evening,” he says in an extremely low voice. Mr Alam is sitting on his haunches by the streetside with six balloons tied to an electric pole beside him. The yellow one has a smiley printed on it, which is looking a tad odd when you contrast it with Mr Alam’s solemn expressions.
He says that each time a customer, usually a child, gets one of these balloons, he replaces it by taking out a new one from his bundle of flat balloons.
Mr Alam gets his balloons from Sadar Bazar. He says he lives by himself in this city. “My home is in Bihar.” His family, in a village of Dharbhanga district, means his elderly parents, he explains. On being queried about his age, he thinks hard as if it were a long-forgotten information, and after a couple of minutes of intense deliberation, he says, “I may be 39, or 42.” A passerby eavesdropping on the conversation finally speaks up, muttering: “You must be 45.”
Mr Alam’s home in Delhi is near Delite cinema, currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s a very small house.” He explains this point in greater detail. “My home is under a staircase… it is very narrow and the roof is very low… you cannot stand up straight… in my home, you can do nothing but lie down on the floor.” He has his meals in nearby eateries.
Mr Alam has been in the city for 16 years, however, and was earlier working in a dhaba.
“I manage to earn just enough for myself.”
Looking about the mostly mask-less crowd, he says he will leave the place at about 1 am, when the traffic of people starts to thin down. (It never totally disappears.) “At home, I try to sleep… but sleep comes after a long time, and so I keep staring at the roof.” He wakes up everyday about 10 in the morning.
During the entire course of this conversation, about 15 minutes, nobody has stopped to get a balloon. The smiley continues to cheerily shine over the traffic square. On request, Mr Alam agrees to pose by his “smile walla gubbara” and, just at the decisive moment of the ‘click’, he breaks into a smile.
[This is the 356th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The balloon hawker’s smiley