Shabbir Shaikh, 30, can slaughter, skin and cut up a chicken in under a minute. It’s a skill he has developed over 15 years of working at Salim Royal Tandoor Shop, Andheri (West).
Originally from Gujarat, Shaikh has lived in Mumbai all his life.
At age seven, still in Class 1, he dropped out of school and began earning a few rupees a day running errands for neighbours. The fourth of six siblings, Shaikh faced no opposition from his parents, an autorickshaw driver and a homemaker, and the money was enough to convince him never to return to class.
By age 15, he had already worked at a shoe shop, a fruit cart and as a peon at a builder’s office in Jogeshwari.
“Then I decided to become a butcher, because I was fascinated by the skilful use of the knife,” he says.
Though slitting throats of chickens was off-putting for the first few days, he soon began to focus on the skill.
Shaikh starts his day at 5.30 am, in the rented one-room home at the Raodevi chawl in Andheri that he shares with his wife and three children.
After a visit to the public lavatories behind the chawl, Shaikh says his morning prayers, has a breakfast of strongly brewed tea and bun-maska, and sets off on the 20-minute walk to work, where he must clock in at 6.30 am.
At the shop, Shaikh changes into his work clothes. “Otherwise all my clothes would look like this,” he says, pointing to his bloodstained T-shirt and trousers.
His first task for the day is to oversee the delivery of about 200 live chickens to the shop, from poultry farms in Panvel and Alibaug. He then joins the five other butchers at the shop in cutting chickens up as per orders placed the previous day.
“From about 10 am to 2 pm, it’s non-stop work,” he says.
In deference to his seniority, Shaikh no longer delivers the meat. “I need to be here to keep the long queues moving. The younger ones are sent out to deliver the meat,” he says proudly.
The trickiest part about working at a chicken shop, says Shaikh, is the orders for boneless chicken. “It takes me five minutes to cut a chicken into neat, boneless pieces; some can do it in three,” he says, raising his eyebrows.
Shaikh’s favourite part of the workday is his two-hour lunch break.
At 3 pm, the six men down the shutters, clean their workstations, wash up and change into their home clothes. Then they head to a nearby eatery together for a meal of rice, dal and fried eggs for R35.
“On days when I feel like splurging, I also order some minced meat, which costs an additional R5,” says Shaikh.
After lunch, Shaikh lounges outside the shop, enjoying the cool breeze and sometimes a quick nap.
At 5 pm it’s back to the grind.
Finally, at 10.30 pm, after a 16-hour workday, Shaikh heads home for a dinner of rice, dal and fried chicken as he watches the news or cricket on TV.
The work is hard and the money not great, he admits. With a monthly salary of R7,000 and rent and household expenses adding up to R4,500, he has barely any savings. “But I cannot demand more. We make R5 per chicken; there are hardly any margins as it is,” he says.
With no fixed days off, Shaikh chooses to take a weekly holiday on the less-busy Mondays or Thursdays. He also takes a week-long break every other year or so, usually planned around a wedding in his hometown in Kutchh.
“I wish I had stayed in school,” Shaikh says, wistfully. “Then maybe I would have had a chicken shop of my own by now.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)