Mission Delhi – Shah Hasan, Bhalswa Dairy
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
So much has changed in just a few months. Auto rickshaw driver Shah Hasan barely manages to register the individuality of his customers anymore. “They’re always in masks…. a series of masks getting in and out of my auto,” he says, shaking his head. The gentleman is actually referring to masks as naqab, which means veil in Urdu.
In his late 50s, Mr Hasan himself is in a mask. All one sees is his long unwieldy white beard, spreading out from under his “naqab” like a king’s rebellious subjects too stubborn to do his bidding.
This time of the year tends to be very hot and also very humid, and the sweaty-faced Mr Hasan often struggles with the temptation of getting rid of his mask, he confesses. But then he remembers his promise to Hamsareen, his wife. After the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, she let him go out into the virus-ridden world under the condition that he would be wearing the mask at all times. “Poor woman, she was silently shedding tears when I first left home to drive the auto,” says Mr Hasan, recalling that just before he stepped out of their home in Northeast Delhi’s Bhalswa Dairy neighbourhood, his wife made a quick prayer while standing in the doorway. But the lady didn’t leave her husband’s protection to the higher power alone. “Every morning she herself re-fixes this plastic,” says Mr Hasan, gesturing towards the plastic sheet that separates him from the auto’s passenger seat. “It was her idea… she says that this way, even if a customer has corona and sneezes or coughs, the bimari (sickness) won’t reach me.”
Initially, Hamsareen herself would stitch masks by the dozens for him as well as for her three sons, but later she turned to buying masks from chemist shops, once a relative told her on phone of their “double-proof safety”.
To be sure, his wife had implored him to give up the profession until the world gets a teeka (vaccine) against corona. They could live off the earnings of their sons—this was her argument. “But I’m khuddar,” Mr Hasan says, insisting on the sanctity of his self-respect. “As long as I’m able to stand on my two feet, I should be able to feed at least myself and my woman.”
He pauses before speaking up again: “The world cannot stop because of a bimari… one has to live, to earn, to keep having self-respect. One also has to take risks.”
Every night, as the auto driver reaches home, he goes straight to wash himself, and changes into a clean ironed set of white salwar kurta and a clean white topi. His wife washes his grey uniform and the white topi he had been wearing during the day so that it is ready to be worn the next morning.
Now the auto driver makes a revelation: “At times, I’m desperate to air the lips (he uses the Hindi phrase “hawa dena”)… so when there’s no one around, I take off the mask for a minute.” Mr Hasan’s bearded cheeks seem to expand under the mask, perhaps he is smiling. “And then it feels like AC.”
[This is the 350th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
A mask in the crowd