The shutter goes up at exactly nine-thirty every morning. The shutter is inscribed with the words “Mister India Gent’s Tailor”, next to which is a painted picture of a suited-booted Anil Kapoor, the reigning Bollywood hero. Today, on 20 September 1990 as well, the shutter goes up at nine-thirty. The man steps in, and the shutter of the adjacent shop too gets lifted up from the inside, this being “Savitri Ladies Boutique”. Behind this second shutter lies a shiny glass door with a “welcome” sign, and below it, the injunction – “Yahaan shohdon ka khada hona manaa hai”. Loafers, louts, scoundrels not to stand here. Shohdon, the word used in the edict, refers to not just any scoundrel but a smirking, winking, neck-craning embodiment of sleaze only to be found in mohallas like this one.

Now hear this – both shops, owned by the same man, with the same wall and veranda, but with two different sets of rules! The day before, Bhola babu had come here to give measurements for a pyjama. The festive season is on, and Mister India being jam-packed, he had shifted just a bit to the other side. At once, a voice rose to admonish him – Aey! You. Mind where your feet go. Haven’t you read this or what?

One step to that side, and our dear retired Bhola babu turns from the most respectable man of the mohalla to a shohda! Just tell me, who acts like this!

Good or bad, decent or characterless – all things can get settled within the span of a single step. This is the philosophy of the owner of Mister India, Sheikh Nizamuddin Wali Ashiq – in short, Ashiq Miyan.

“You want the pant length kept forty, or forty and a half inches?” Ashiq asks while measuring a customer.

“Keep it whatever, yaar, what difference does half an inch make?”

“Think again, bhaiyya. The difference of half an inch can turn a man into a Hindu or a Musalman.”

Aramganj-walas don’t want to forget this half-inch difference. And don’t care to remember the two different shop names. Consequently, they have combined the two names, Savitri Ladies Boutique and Mister India, into one – Two-in-One Tailor. Just as a two-in-one can be a radio as well as a tape recorder, our Ashiq Miyan can stitch salwar suits and blouses for women with the same facility with which he makes shirt-pants and kurta-pyjama for men.

Mostly, our mohalla people like to say that Ashiq might be “two-in-one” as a tailor, but as a man, he is four-in-one. Maybe even more than that. In the entire stretch from Aramganj Chowk to Pahadi Tola, and from Bada Talab to Main Road, many different stories are heard and known about Ashiq Miyan. When Ashiq Miyan flew kites, the sky would get emptied of rivals in a matter of minutes. Records for roadside games like marbles and gilli-danda are all in his name, and will remain in his name – because now these games are hardly played. Who knows how many things this man is a master of!

“Had he not been a tailor, Ashiq would have been a wonderful painter. The portrait of Anil Kapoor on his shop’s shutter is his handiwork.”

“No, no, he would have been a top mechanic. The company repaired my TV, but after it was fixed, it conked off again. Who knows what Ashiq did after opening the thing, but within five minutes, it was working again.”

“In this entire town, you won’t find another fellow who can drive every vehicle – from cycle to truck. Give an aeroplane to this guy, that too he would fly without any training.”

Among Ashiq’s many exploits, the most famous is the incident when he jumped in the baoli at Sheetala temple and saved Peetambar’s ten-year-old son. Peetambar sells garlands outside the temple. There is no dispute over the veracity of this story. The sole argument is over the exact duration of time for which Ashiq kept circling in the water with the drowning child on his shoulders. Some say at least fifteen minutes. But there are those who insist that he must have swum for not a minute less than an hour. Because, no rope being at hand, it was sent for from Jamuna’s hardware shop, and that had taken a lot of time.

The stories of his exploits and talents may be slightly adulterated. But the truth as absolute as sixteen annas in a rupee is that Ashiq alone possesses a unique talent never seen before in these parts. This involves not just his ability to break-dance like Jaaved Jaaferi, the movie star. When Ashiq performs the breakdance, he also juggles lit torches in both hands, and filling his mouth with kerosene, blows such rings of fire in the air as he gyrates, that people watch with dropped jaws. Whether it is Dussehra, or Saraswati Puja, or the Kali Puja immersion procession, the crowning glory of any such evening is this feat of Ashiq Miyan.

It isn’t as if Ashiq Miyan is well-liked by everyone. Several young buggers of Aramganj say Ashiqwa saala is a top-notch bastard. Much like Lord Indra presiding over a gathering of celestial nymphs, he himself is always surrounded by women, but tells those who come for measurements that they must never ever turn their neck towards Savitri Ladies Boutique! He says, “Turning the neck ruins both measurement and character. If you want to get your clothes tailored, stand up straight, give measurements, and get lost.”

As for him – the slightest stir of a lady customer at the boutique’s door, and Ashiq at once rushes through the four-by two inner door connecting Mister India to Savitri. Now watch Ashiq Miyan’s demeanour! How he laughs and smiles, calling this one his sister-in-law, and asking the bhabhi how the visit to the maternal home is going. Every older woman is his aunt—if not bua, then chachi. The younger ones are all sisters, didis. Now he is divulging to chachi a cure for arthritis, as swift and sure as Ram-ji’s arrow. And promising young Chutki that he will stitch such a salwar suit for her that the boy’s side will at once say yes upon seeing her. And then what? Quick engagement, express wedding! And chachi can then breathe easy, as after taking a dip in the Ganga-ji…Isn’t that so, chachi?

The “gents” customers might keep waiting, but would Ashiq Miyan free himself up before at least an hour or hour-and-a-half of attending to these buas and didis? Such a magical sweetness in his words! As for the ambience of the boutique – don’t even ask! To put it together, Ashiq has poured in not just money but the very contents of his heart. Man-sized mirrors on three sides, and towards the front, a huge wardrobe, where stitched garments are arranged tastefully. There is a tiny trial room as well, outside which stands a marble-bodied mannequin clad in a salwar suit.

Loafers-louts-scoundrels are not allowed inside, but nothing can stop stories from coming outside. Arguments go on and on. Over whether the mannequin’s face is more like Sudha’s or Puja’s. Women past their prime go to Ashiq’s shop less to give measurements and more to keep an eye on the younger girls. No, there is no risk inside the shop itself. But on stepping out, one has to walk down the streets of this mohalla. The times are very bad, and on top of it, this mohalla! Because of the goings-on in this mohalla, Sarvdaman Singh keeps crying to this day.

Ashiq Miyan is fair-complexioned, with a taut and well-exercised body and eyes full of light. His thick moustache tapers and thins on the sides, just like Anil Kapoor’s. His age must be around thirty-two, but he looks even younger. In ladies’ circles, some difference of opinion prevails about his looks. Some women say, “No, no, he does not resemble Anil Kapoor, he looks more like Jackie Shroff.”

Ashiq’s popularity among the chowk women gives many heartburn. But the truth is, Ashiq is a lover boy, or ashiq, only in name. This householder has one caring but quarrelsome wife, two children and an old mother. Not a hint of scandal around him as far as can be seen. Yes, one thing though needs to be said. Ashiq’s words bear a nectar of sorts. Maybe that is why people are drawn towards him. Women are his admirers because he has infinite patience to listen to their happy or sad stories.

Such is the magic in his words that the dramatis personae of Ashiq’s tales come alive, and the incidents seem to unfold right before the eyes of the listeners. The wise men of the mohalla say Ashiq lives off his ability to talk and not off his ability to wield the needle and thread. Hearing this, Ashiq grows serious and replies in a philosophical tone – “I live off whatever my Ram-ji gives me.”

Excerpted with permission from 1990, Aramganj, Rakesh Kayasth, translated from the Hindi by Varsha Tiwary, Eka/Westland.