How did people wake up before alarm clocks became ubiquitous? The question becomes a lot more relevant when I think of it in the context of Ramadan. How did people wake up on time for sehri? The azaan (call for prayer) in the morning signals a stop eating and the start of preparation for the morning prayer, fajr.
You can find the answer in Old Delhi, where sehri wallahs or the ‘knocker uppers’ walk through the streets calling at doors to wake people up. Some rap on your window with a stick until you got out of bed. They are all volunteers and are also known as masaharati, which means the dervishes who give a wake-up call to the fasting Muslims for sehri. In Old Delhi and other South Asian regions, they also go by the name Sehri Khan or Sahar Khan.
Between 2007 and 2010, when I lived in a hostel in Hindipidih in Ranchi, I remember being woken by Sehri Khans, who would call each of us out by name. Most of them were people who worked at the small restaurants nearby. You’d hear they call: “Bhai Sadaf, sehri ka waqt ho gaya, uth jaaye (Brother Sadaf, wake up; it is time for sehri)”. It had a personal touch.
Many of these traditions may have died out in Delhi, but in the streets of the old city, you can still find sehri wallahs going door to door, knocking, and reciting the names of the people who live there. Even though there are sirens and periodic messages from the mosques, this practice is still going strong. The human relationships that these Khans have built up over the years are core to the Walled City.
While exploring Old Delhi early in the morning, I met one of the few Sehri Khans in Gali Madarse Wali, Matia Mahal. It was not yet dawn but Mohammad Nadeem, 33, was dressed in a crisp, white, neatly ironed kurta. I joined hm as he walked through the lanes to wake people. He circled each area twice: once to wake people and again as a follow-up. He said he knew everyone in the lane. “I have to stay up-to-date, because it would be very wrong to mention someone who has died. I try to get along well with everyone,” he says.
Nadeem works at a garage during the day, and at night, for the past 18 years, he has been the one waking people for morning prayers. People give him eidi on Eid as a thank you for the work he does during Ramadan. "When my grandfather went on his trips, he would take me with him. That's how I started doing it. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. Awaaz itni buland ho ki milo tak awaaz goonj jaaye (Our voice should be loud enough that it can be heard for miles)," he says.
A few streets away, I met Naseemuddin who covers the area near Kalan Masjid, Mohalla Qabristan, and the Turkman Gate. Unlike Nadeem, he was holding a stick and quietly knocking on people's doors. Now in his early 50s, Naseemuddin has been doing this job for nearly 20 years. "I grew up with my father going around these lanes to wake people up. I learned this skill from him, and in most ways, it was he who got me interested in doing this voluntary work for Allah," he says.
The Sehri Khans are not paid, though the families give them Eidi. Allah's blessing is their real prize, says Nadeem. My father had some perspective to add about the origins of this practice: Muslim residents of Medina had to wake before the sunrise for sehri, and Hazrat Bilal Habashi, the first muezzin of Islam, took on the responsibility. He and his followers would carry burning sticks to light up the streets and get people awake for sehri. This strategy soon became the norm with their own alterations, like singing, knocking on doors and windows, or just calling people's names. Earlier, every Muslim neighbourhood had one local man assigned. He recalls the name of the Sehri Khan of his lane, Ustad Hamza.
It makes me realise that it’s the small practices and memories that come together to make Ramadan so important: A bottle of roohafza at iftar, a bowl of sheer khurma at Eid, and Sehri Khans at Sehri. In the modern world, with phones and clocks, Sehri Khans are really not necessary but their presence makes us recognize our shared humanity and interdependence, brings us together, and gives us an appreciation for the little things.