New Delhi — For nearly 60 years, Mohammed Shafiq has braved New Delhi’s hot temperatures, a bad knee and evil spirits to wake up his neighbors for morning prayers and a final meal before sun rise during the holy month of Ramadan.
But nothing prepared him for the rise of New Delhi’s electricity grid and its many cellphones.
The 68-year old Mr. Shafiq is known here as a town crier. The job has been made gradually obsolete by the arrival decades ago of the city’s electricity supply and recent improvements to the grid, powering up smartphones throughout the night and their alarm clocks that wake people up for prayer.
Mr. Shafiq’s sense of religious duty compels him to soldier on, adding his special, personalized touch, he said. He prefers to wake up neighbors by shouting out their names, rather than leave them to the clanging of alarm clocks.
From a cramped one-room apartment, Mr. Shafiq explained the hazards of the job — including fending off those evil spirits, a headless man and a beautiful vampire — as he sat on the floor, the walls painted a bubblegum pink. His shock of white hair burst out in tufts from a black skullcap adorned with rhinestones and sequins from every hue of a neon-colored rainbow, his protruding belly covered by a mustard-yellow tunic.
This year will be Mr. Shafiq’s first making the rounds alone. His brother used to make the rounds with him but he died eight months ago. His son decided he wouldn’t carry on the tradition, he recalled as his wife looked on solemnly.
In his neighborhood of Old Delhi — the original city center of the capital, New Delhi — Mr. Shafiq was once one of dozens of other town criers servicing thousands of homes, each assigned a zone. Today he is one of a handful.
“As children working with my father we covered 70 lanes, hundreds of houses,” he said. “Today, my bad knees don’t allow me to do more than four lanes. It’s lonely work and when I go, the tradition will die, too.”
He starts his duties at 2:30 a.m., armed with the verses he has memorized from the Quran to ward off the evil spirits and a stick for the wild dogs.
Traversing Old Delhi’s windy, narrow alleyways one recent morning, underneath a canopy of exposed electricity wires and a tangle of thick, fiber optic internet cables, Mr. Shafiq relentlessly rang — and kept