In a shaded bylane near the Mahim church, a jovial 55-year-old mans a tiny, yellow PCO booth that also offers patrons cigarettes, candy, cups of steaming chai and packets of potato chips.
Step back from the crowded metal cubicle and you will read that the stall is run by Mohammed Yousuf Ali Awazi, that it was donated to him by Lions Club, and that Awazi is disabled.
Awazi has muscular atrophy of the right leg. “I didn’t cry when I was born, so I was taken to a doctor, a young medical intern, who attempted to give me an injection and, in the process, damaged a vital nerve,” he says. “My family was outraged. But we were poor, and my father felt that there was no point ruining the young man’s career. If this was Allah’s will, so be it.”
Unable to walk without assistance, Awazi, a father of six, spent 30 years selling ballpoint pens and sunglasses outside railway stations to make a living. Ten years ago, he was allotted this relatively comfortable booth, where he is assisted by his youngest son, Rizwan, 22.
The hours are long — 9 am to 9 pm — and the earnings a mere Rs 10,000 a month. “Of this, I spend Rs 4,500 on rent, water and electricity. The rest is all we have to run our household,” says Awazi. “Inshallah, all my children have grown up well and are well-settled. Now, it’s just my wife, myself and my youngest son.” Thankfully, Awazi’s rented home, a 10 ft x 12 ft tenement near the Mahim dargah, is just a 10-minute taxi ride from his booth.
In what could have been a dull job, Awazi livens up his day by chatting with his customers. “I believe in being happy and good with everybody. What’s the point of living a life of tension?” he asks.
Most of his customers are journalists who work in the building behind his booth and spend their breaks smoking and sipping chai around his stall. A dwindling minority comes to use the landline, usually students who don’t yet own a cellphone.
“I’ve been operating this booth since 2001 and the number of people who use the PCO service has fallen every year, as more people buy cellphones,” he says. “Initially, I used to have three phones; now I keep only two.”
Whiling away the time drinking endless cups of chai and smoking cigarettes — “down from eight a day to three or four, because of a high blood pressure problem” — Awazi says he tries not to eavesdrop on callers’ private conversations, but laughingly admits that lovers’ spats are extremely entertaining.
“I don’t judge,” he adds. “The only problem I have is with young students spending too much time chasing the opposite sex. When boys and girls use my PCO to talk to their lovers, I ask them not to do it. This isn’t the time; they should be focusing on their careers.”
The busiest time of day for Awazi is after lunch, so he and his son usually eat their meal at only around 4 pm, sharing their homemade tiffin of dal, rice, roti and sabzi in the stall.
A religious man, Awazi dreams of taking the pilgrimage to Mecca. In reality, he works 365 days a year, only taking the liberty of opening late on holidays such as Eid and Holi — and he hasn’t taken a vacation in 20 years, the last one being a trip to Aurangabad, where his wife’s family resides.
“There isn’t a lot of money in my line of work,” he says. “But I’m content. My only wish now is to leave behind a house of my own when I die.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)