Muhammad Anwar

Muhammad Anwar

Ye zindagi, ye zindagi, ye zindagi,
Ek din tujhe daga de degi,
Isse pehle ki ye tujhe daga de,
Tu isse daga de de…1

Muhammad Anwar’s voice was gravelly, slow and deep. It rustled on the s’s and z’s as the Urdu couplets danced in rhythmic gusts from his tooth-bare mouth, carried on tobacco-stained breath. 

He paused, looking at us intently through pale brown eyes. 

Do you know what this means?

We shook our heads.

It means that one day this life will end. Your soul will leave your body. Before this happens, you must consciously die. Before dying to the physical world, you must die to yourself. Die while you are alive. As you go about your life—walking, talking, doing whatever you are doing—you must kill your inner demon; your materialism, your desires, your ego. He who wins over this inner demon will become immortal.  

Nizamuddin Auliya has taught me many things over the years. But this is his most important lesson.

Around us in every direction, the sprawling megacity of Delhi heaved its way into the evening, yet somehow, just here, it felt quiet. 

Mohammad Anwar lifted his large, bare right foot onto his left thigh, resettling himself into a low cross-legged position on the fading pink Persian rug beneath him. Opposite us, a kerosene lamp flickered within a small shrine, casting a dancing light onto its rough stone walls, and the green and yellow chadar (sacred cloth) that cloaked its base. 

This open yet sheltered space, which lay at the heart of 14th Century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya’s chilla (place of meditation), was separated from the elements by a crumbling dome. It had been Anwar’s home for more than 30 years, and was where he spent the majority of his waking and sleeping hours. There was little evidence of this, however. A tin box behind him held all of his worldly possessions – some clothing and a few pots. A pile of cement bags was stacked in the far corner.

This is Nizamuddin Auliya’s real place; his place of peace. It’s where he spent most of his time. He would go through periods of intense meditation here, disappearing underground for weeks and taking only a few dates with him. There is a chamber just beneath us, connected directly by a passageway to the dargah [Nizamuddin’s place of burial, which lies across the road]. It has a burning fire at its centre that never goes out. No-one has been able to get into it, but I’ve been there in my dreams.

Once some men tried to excavate it, but a huge amount of rubble fell and they had to give up the attempt. Another time, I tried to get into the chamber, but as I was digging at the brick, I heard a thousand voices shouting at me to stop; so I stopped. I was ill for two months after that. No doctor could cure me.

The fading Autumn light reddened, carrying upon it melodic prayers from Damdama Sahib’s Gurudwara next door, and the rhythmic chugs and passing horns of well-loaded trains, making their way into and out of Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station. In Nizamuddin’s time, more than 700 years ago, the area looked very different. The simple thatched lodging in which the Saint lived was surrounded by forest, and the Yamuna river flowed where railway tracks lie today. Devotees would visit him in large numbers, seeking relief from their worries and a lift in their spirits. Continue reading


Salva didi

When I was first brought here, I had no idea what work I had to do. How could I have known? Once I discovered what it was I felt like killing myself, or someone else. 

Pale shafts of morning sunlight flooded the stone-floored room, casting long shadows against peeling yellow walls as we sat, cross-legged, on the dusty floor. A cacophony of sounds rose upwards from the narrow, crowded gully beneath us; loud horns, the growl of fast moving motorbike engines, the hammering of metal upon metal from the multiple blacksmiths’ open-fronted shops, yet all were somehow muffled by the weighty stillness that bathed Salva’s words.

She placed her attention back on the sewing machine in front of her and began to spin its mechanical wheel. It made a rhythmic clicking sound as the needle moved up and down, up and down, as the deep purple salwar beneath it inched a little closer to completion.

How did you discover? I asked her.

The clicking sound stopped, and she drew the cloth away from the machine.

They put a lot of make up on me. Short clothes, too. I’d never worn these kinds of things and I didn’t want to, but when I protested I was forced. The clients would come in and sit there. Whenever they came closer and tried something with me, I’d hit them a lot. How was I supposed to know what they were there for? But then obviously the poor guys would complain as they’d paid money, and later I’d pay for it. I was beaten very badly. The malik [brothel owner] would say, “You were brought here for this work. I’ve bought you… now you have to do it”.

As Salva spoke, my eyes were drawn to the deep scar that traced its way in a peculiar kind of U-shape all the way around the top of her left arm. I wondered which of the many beatings she had endured had resulted in this particular injury. Did you ever try to run away?

Lots of times. Whenever I got a small tip from a client, I’d hide it in whatever small secret places I could find in the kotha [brothel], but I never managed to get away. They beat us terribly if we tried.

Did anyone ever die from the beatings?

Many girls have died that way on GB Road. But it’s our fate. What can I do if God wants me to live like this?

Salva is a curious mixture of the rough and the smooth. It is rare to find her without black kohl swirled in thick lines around her large dark eyes and her full lips painted red; striking against her high cheekbones and long charcoal hair. Her voice and manner can be coarse, almost manly at times, yet her plump, curvaceous frame, coupled with what can be no more than five feet of height give her an endearing, slightly dumpy look. She took another pause from her sewing, and continued. 

Continue reading

Saeed-ji: Fakir, Mechanic and Believer in Humanity


At first sight he was almost invisible, curled into a spot between the black painted railings that fronted the tomb and the trunk of a low hanging Ashoka tree. Most mornings he was to be found here, wrapped in a long black anorak, knees pulled to his chest as he looked into the distance. There was something captivating about him: an unmistakable sense of dignity, yet a sadness too.

Society today is destroyed. They say it’s “developed”, but we don’t care about each other. A lot of people see me and probably think: “He’s just a footpath man, or a beggar, why should I talk to him?” But society has it wrong.

We need more insaniyat, more humanship — “humanity”, as you say.

Insaniyat means curiosity, awareness, developing the capacity to help. It means respecting your neighbours and surroundings. It means asking yourself: “Who is this or that person? Are they ok?”

If our politicians sat down and worked together, if they thought together, they would build more humanity and brotherhood. It would be for the general good of human progress. But they don’t do that.  Most people see it as a waste of time.

Now between 75 and 80 years old, Saeed is without home or income. Each morning, around 7am, he makes his way from the night shelter at which he sleeps to the red-stone, tree-lined tomb that stands across the road, “to take the air”. 

“It’s too noisy for me there with all the prayers going on”, he says. “Here, I can take in the beauty, the surroundings”.

He sits at the tomb’s edge in most weathers, waiting for the library close by to open, where he goes to read the newspaper and various books.

I’m a man of knowledge, he explained emphatically, as we sat down to speak one morning in the pale light of early spring. I’ve studied the lives of all of the prophets — Christ, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha — and about all of our religions. I can speak four different languages: Farsee, Hindi, Urdu, English. Do you know about DNA and cloning? I can tell you all about it. A man has many DNAs within him!

Where did you learn all of this? I asked.

I taught myself, mostly. I was at school until I was 12 years old, but then I left home. My father was a selfish man and didn’t care about his son at all. Once I left, I would work for money in the daytime, and then study by the light of a pole until 3 o’clock every morning. I studied physics, biology, literature, novels… many things. By myself.

Saeed was born in the city of Kanpur, in a place called Begum Ganj. Since leaving home, his life has been split between Bombay and Delhi – where he has worked a whole host of professions. He’s been “a mechanic, a spray painter, a painter, a technician, a carpenter, a polisher” but most of all, he says, he is a lover of books. 

At one point, he exclaimed proudly, eyes gleaming, I even had a 400-book library cum bookshop in Bombay, filled with books on the different world religions, the lives of the prophets, and many other things! But ten years ago, as my faculties started to diminish, I was forced to embrace poverty. I had to donate all of my books, because there was no one to help me.

I’ve seen a lot of poverty in my life, many ups and downs. I have felt sadness from top to bottom. But you tell me, is there anything lacking in my poverty? Is there anything missing, anything less?

Continue reading

Bitti Devi


We were sitting on a charpoy in the fading evening light. Above our heads, a canopy of bright green fluttering neem leaves. The blazing heat of the day was finally dispersing, leaving in its wake a gentle breeze that carried the musky smell of muddy straw-topped huts. A babble of chatter emerged from the crowd that surrounded us: the crowd that always gathered whenever we entered a village. Many of the children, even adults, had never seen a foreigner. If my skin was white, I feel sure the reaction would have been even more curious. The camera, too, drew inquisitive stares that quickly melted into raptures of delight at the images, which gazed just as inquisitively back at them.

Bitti Devi sat tall and proud. Bedecked in a rather regal bright blue sari that partly covered the deep purple blouse beneath it. A faint grin curled the corners of her mouth revealing a row of straight teeth that sloped attractively inwards, her deep brown eyes alive with zeal.

It wasn’t long before her hearty, rasping laugh billowed outwards, filled with a force that was instantly striking. She had just been asked her age.

Don’t ask me my age! I won’t tell you.

She grinned humorously, looking around as others in the crowd chipped in: “she’s between 35 and 40. Better round it up to 40”, they giggled. Bitti Devi is already a grandmother.

She decided, or perhaps deigned, to tell us a little more.

I was married when I was 14, and my eldest daughter is already married with a son. He’s a year old now, and is starting to walk. I have three other children too; another daughter and two sons. I’ll get my second daughter married soon… and then my son.

The crowd around us laughed as she pointed out her rather small looking children in the crowd.

I asked her whether things had changed much over her lifetime here.

Not much has changed here. Well, maybe a few things. Our houses used to all be made of mud before and the clothes we wear have changed, too. There have been lots of these sort of changes. Some of the houses have been reconstructed since the boys have started earning. Those with God’s blessing have renovated their homes, and the others who are not in a good financial situation are still living in their old houses.

The crowd, quieter now, was paying close attention – chipping in from time to time – as Bitti Devi told us a little about her work.

I have been working on the land all my life. We have our own business here, with two acres on rent. I have no money for labour so I can’t employ anyone on my fields. That means I labour myself, and sometimes I work in other people’s fields, too. I get  Rs100-150 a day, and so does my husband. With the rest of my time I look after my children. That’s also work, you know!

She laughed again, and continued.

Continue reading

Harvinder Singh Bindra: Taxi Driver, Coin Collecter and Astrologer


I have more than 120 coins now, even I don’t know where they are from. Because I just know English and Indian language. I can’t say about Japanese, Korean and Chinese, but I collect them. I collect from the people who come in my cab, from all over the world. How many countries you have been?

Mmm, I’m not sure, maybe about ten. Quite a few… but where are you from?

I’m from Delhi, Maam. I started driving many years back.

How do you like driving?

[He laughed] It was in my destiny. I can drive truck also. But it was in destiny to be driving. I have seen ninety-five percent of north India. I have just not seen those two, Leh and Ladakh. Otherwise I have seen the entire here and there north area.

Aside from collecting coins, I have many other hobbies. My second hobby is astrology. I’ve been reading books for more than 30 years. I can make charts. I can predict. In my free time I like to see movies too: Indian old movies. That’s my third hobby. And what do you do? After writing, what do you do?

Mmm, I like music. I like to play music. But what do I do? Well, I’m passionate about the things I write about. I like to write people’s stories.

What kind?

I like to ask people about their lives.

You should write about me!

I should write about you! I would love to write about you.

My life is not a normal life.

It doesn’t sound like a normal life.

The doctor told my wife you can’t be a mother. I have three children. But my first daughter was a test tube baby.


Yes. She’s now more than fifteen and a half. I have traveled a lot to north India, as well as south for my personal travel. I can’t tell you all these things in one day, but they are good stories. You would like to hear them.

I would love to hear them. What is your name?

My name is Harvinder Singh Bindra. You can see my picture on the internet. If you put my name you’ll see my picture there. A lot of tourists have taken my picture when they come in my cab.

Wow, well maybe I will write your story.

What is your first name?


Big brain.

Haha, no!


Just many questions.

From your name I’m telling you. You have a lot of energy. Yes. You are a hard worker. You have a lot of energy. A lot of secrets of people in your mind. Yes. Your name tells me this. So this is nearby where you want to go.

[I laughed, and we paused for a while as he looked for directions]

So you have three children?

I have three daughters, one son. She’s 15 and a half now. She’s good at study. She wrote an essay for how to save fuel and she won a prize. 30 thousand rupees, from Indian Oil. Last year she went to Chandigarh for an oil saving program there.

How amazing. That’s wonderful. What is her name?

Anmol. Same to you. The first two alphabets are important.

You must be somewhere here. Maybe right one here. Yes, here we are, Triveni Sangham Marg.

[We exchanged details so that I could call him again soon]

“Thank you so much, Mr. Bindra, I look forward to meeting you again”, I said as he drove away from the curb.

Om Prakash (OP)


People say farming is a difficult profession. And it’s true. Farmers aren’t progressing today because of a lack of access to advanced technologies. If we had this, our yields would improve. But with low yields we don’t get good money and without good money, we aren’t happy.

But in my opinion this isn’t the deepest issue. It is concern about the results of our actions that causes us ultimate suffering. In the Gita, Lord Krishna says: “karm karo, phal ki chinta mat karo” (do your deeds and don’t be concerned with the results).

To me, this means you shouldn’t worry about the results of your actions or expect immediate results from them. Rather, to find happiness you should throw yourself into your work with love, expecting nothing in return. That’s why the Pandavas in the Mahabharat won the battle, because they weren’t worried about results. If I’ve done a good deed nature will reward me for it, but it may be that those rewards will come in ways I can’t see.

“Jahan summat tahan sumpat nana; jahan kumat tahan vipat nidhana”. It means wherever there is mindful action, different kinds of wealth come to you. Wherever there is an absence of mindfulness, all sorts of unsolvable problems will arise. I think this is the reality. Our fates are written in time. However long my life is, it was meant to be that long. So if I am to die at a certain point, it is when I was meant to.

OP took a long, considered sip from his glass of milky chai as he looked out towards the straw-topped huts that surrounded us. We were sitting in the covered area that fronted his house, which nestled towards the edge of the village of Kaharanpurawa. Surrounding us stood a growing contingent of wide-eyed, scraggly-haired children who looked on curiously; twirling their reddish strands of hair or tugging at loose shirt buttons.

Like his father and grandfather before him he has been a farmer his whole life; a profession that makes itself known in the sinewed cut of his limbs and the ruggedness of his hands. He has a warmth and sincerity about him that is instantly endearing and a face wrinkled with laughter lines carved beneath the fierce open elements. Relaxing for a few moments before leaving for the fields, he leant back against the concrete pillar that held up his roof and looked into the earthy fabric of his past.

Continue reading