It’s 3 am in Mumbai. Much of the city that claims never to sleep is silent and resting, save for one corner in the south. Under the massive JJ Flyover, in an area called Mohammad Ali Road, the streets are humming and throbbing. All kinds of meats and sweets are being made at roadside stalls. Not a single restaurant is shuttered. Teenagers, sometimes four to a bike, whiz around. Little children play cricket in the traffic-free narrow lanes.

In this chaos resounds the call of Mohammed Farooq Qureshi Sheikh. “Neend se jaago, sehari ka waqt ho gaya. Zindagi ka kya bharosa? Ramzan mile ya na mile.” Wake up, it’s time for sehar. Who knows what life will bring? If we are able to get Ramzan, or not?

For the last 18 years, during every Ramzan, Sheikh has made the same seven-kilometre trek from Shafai Masjid in Dongri to Dawoodbhoy Fazalbhoy High School in Chinch Bunder. The distance isn’t much, but Sheikh walks through every lane and by-lane, reminding the residents with his call to awaken for sehar (the meal eaten before the fasting for the day begins).

Along the way, passersby who know him, and call him Taj Bhai, stop to greet him. A few of them give him donations for his work. Children holler “Taj Bhai, chalu ho jao.” Taj Bhai, do your thing.

The 56-year-old finishes his walk by quarter past four, about 15 minutes before sunrise, so he can have his meal before the fasting begins. He chooses to avoid the area’s famed Ramzan delicacies, opting for a simple meal of milk and chapati. “At my age I can’t eat things like malpua,” he said.

A dying tradition

Sheikh is a practitioner of a Ramzan tradition that dates back ages, to a time before people had ready access to clocks and needed someone to tell them time. In Egypt, the practice is called Musaharaty and those who sustain it El Musaharaty. In Kashmir, they are given the name Sehar Khans.

Everywhere, alas, the custom is slowly dying out. The Sehar Khan, or the El Musaharaty, is becoming increasingly obsolete as people have begun relying on their mobile phones or alarm clocks to tell them time.

Sheikh calls himself a “sehariwalla” and while he says he hasn’t heard of the Sehar Khans of Kashmir, he does remember an “old man with a walking stick” who would come to his neighborhood when he was growing up. “Even then, the tradition of the sehariwallas was almost non-existent.”

Sheikh began his twilight Ramzan walks when he was in his mid-30s. His wife passed away when he was 22 and their son passed away soon after he was born. “In the beginning, I would walk up to the last floor in each building and call out to people. Now, I am too old to do that so I have this megaphone.”

He stays up all night, and at 3 am, he sets off from the office of the travel agency where he has worked for the past 15 years and where he lives in a corner. Sheikh says he got his first job when he was 16 at a printing press, after which he got by with odd jobs. Many of the employees at the travel agency have grown up seeing Taj Bhai do his nightly rounds.

Even in his old age, Sheikh keeps a brisk pace as he makes way through Mohammad Ali Road, chanting, “Neend se jaago, sehari ka waqt ho gaya...”

Saif Sathi, who has grown up in the area, feels Sheikh is still important. “There are so many people who don’t have anyone to wake them up,” said the 17-year-old. “People who sleep on the streets, for one thing. Even the local mosque has no one to wake them up. My family, too, relies on his call to awaken.”

But giving wake-up calls is not all Sheikh does. Last year, when the monsoon was late in arriving, he began going to the Kasaiwada area in Kurla to ask people to pray for rain. Even this year, because the rains didn’t come on time, he reminded people to pray for them. On occasion, when asked by local municipal councillors, he even announces government schemes. “A few years ago, they were distributing spectacles, so I announced that in the neighbourhood. More recently, I announced the government’s plan to conduct heart operations for free.”

According to Sheikh, there are still sehariwallas in the “poorer areas of the city who go around with daflis (tambourines)”. In Mumbai’s suburbs, in slums in Kurla or Nala Sopara, this tradition might still exist because not everyone there might have a phone, he believes.

But in the main city, he claims he “might be the only one still practising the profession”, although he adds a disclaimer. “I don’t keep up with what others are doing. All I can say for sure is that I am doing it.”

He plans to continue being a sehriwalla as long as he is “hale and hearty”, and is not very optimistic that future generations will continue in his footsteps. “Is there anyone in your generation who will stand and sing for an hour and a half?” he asked and laughed heartily.