Abdul Gafur, a 55-year-old coolie at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station, is a pious Muslim. During the holy month of Ramzan, he fasts every day even while carrying heavy luggage, climbing up stairs and treading across platforms under a scorching sun.
He has a meal before sunrise and comes to work from his nearby rented accommodation, where he shares a room with five other coolies, at 5.30 am. He migrated to the city from Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan around 20 years ago to work as a porter at the station.
Except for a short nap in the afternoon, Gafur works continuously till 6.30 pm, when he heads to a small mosque next to the station’s entrance, to pray and break his fast.
“For us coolies, it’s a very difficult Ramzan. The temperature, as you know, is more than 40 degrees often and we have to carry heavy loads. Moreover, the food we have before sunrise is very negligible. Yet most of us fast every day,” said Gafur, as he tied on his hand a badge identifying him as “Porter No 117”.
The mosque Gafur visits is a nondescript cubic double-storey structure, which houses the tombs of two supposed Sufi saints. Its construction was completed around five years ago with the collective contributions and efforts of the 300-odd Muslim coolies of the station.
The railway station, connected by a busy road to the dargah (shrine) of famous Sufi saint Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, has a total of 532 registered porters.
On every evening during Ramzan, at around sunset, the small mosque is filled with about 100 coolies and taxi drivers who, after a hard day’s labour on an empty stomach, break their fast and pray. The muezzin, who calls the faithful for prayer, too is a coolie.
Not only blue-collared workers, but Muslim railway officials, passengers and even passers-by drop in occasionally to break their fast at the mosque.
As Gafur puts it, “This mosque is not by the coolies and for the coolies. It’s by the coolies, for anyone who wishes to spend time here and be a part of the prayers.”
The iftar here is unlike that at most other mosques. The crowd is not attired in crisp white kurta-pyjamas, but in the characteristic red coat of the coolies.
Here the money required for the meal to break the day-long fast is not issued by a committee or trust, but collected from among the coolies and taxi drivers. In common perception, an iftar meal is believed to be a sumptuous feast, but here, it’s kept simple, consisting primarily of fruits and sherbet.
“Everyone pitches in with whatever they can – someone gives Rs 10 and another gives Rs 20. At the end of the day, we collect around Rs 1,100, enough for our humble iftar,” said Mohammad Salluddin Khan, a 45-year-old taxi driver and a regular at the mosque.
Maulana Mohammed Yunus, the mosque’s imam since 2000, said Muslim workers of the area, especially coolies, had been offering prayers at the spot for ages.
“The mazar (mausoleum) has been here since ages, I have been told. The faithful used to spontaneously offer their prayers at this spot. Then a tin shed was built to hold prayers,” Yunus said.
He stays in a room on the first floor of the mosque, and his salary too comes from the funds raised by the coolies and taxi drivers.
In 2000, a few senior coolies (one of whom was Gafur) made an attempt to put the haphazard religious practices at the spot into a proper system, and requested Yunus, a native of Haryana’s Palwal district, to take charge.
The ‘immarat’, as it stands now, was completed in 2009-10, being built gradually over a long period of time with contributions from coolies and some help from taxi drivers and other Muslims of the area.
The mosque also serves as a resting spot for coolies, taxi drivers and labourers. On any afternoon, one can find at least a dozen of them enjoying a siesta on the floor by the side of the two tombs. Regulars at the mosque collected money and installed a large cooler on the ground floor to help them cope with the relentless heat.
If one asks any of the workers resting inside the mosque how they manage to fast in spite of their long working hours, they reply it’s all possible by Allah’s grace.
“When you see a working coolie’s Ramzan fast, you will realise the importance of food and water in people’s lives. It’s not like sitting in an air-conditioned house and fasting. Our Ramzan fast is the real one,” said Mohammad Akbar, a coolie.