At the age of 12, Mukeed Ahmad came to Delhi, a city of dreams, in search of work. “I started working at a juice shop right in front of the Red Fort and used to sleep on the same footpath”, he says, as he signals towards the footpath where he now has a small shop of gemstones.
“I came to this place in 1987, around 35 years ago. I was young and naive. All I knew was that I needed to earn — both money and respect in a city of strangers,” he starts his story while looking at one of the elevated dome-shaped pavilions of the Red Fort across the road.
“This is the juice shop where I started to work as a young child, cleaning the glasses and jugs, removing the waste. Within a few years of working with honesty, the owner made me a shareholder in the shop. The share was small but that was the moment when I earned my first ounce of respect. I knew that a person’s respect has nothing to do with the nature of the work they do, but with their devotion to it”, he smiles.
Odd job man
“On the days when the shop was closed, I used to sell tea in the nearby areas. On regular days, I used to work part-time in the other shops on the same footpath”, he states, while pointing out there are no such shops anymore.
There were hundreds of shops on the footpath right opposite the Red Fort, each dealing in gemstones. There was a time when it was impossible to find an idle shopkeeper as they had to deal with a constant stream of customers.
However, the area has changed beyond recognition. Ahmad, who presently sells gemstones in an MCD-allotted shop on the same footpath, is the last of the old-timers.
“Whenever I had some time in my hand, I used to work at the other shops as well, they in return taught me about gemstones. A lot of odd jobs were to be done for this, but it resulted in a good side income as well”, he adds.
“Time passed and from being a worker to a shareholder at the juice shop, finally I got it allotted in my name. One can say that it was the beginning of my success, but I don’t believe it to be”, states Ahmad as he recalls a memory that was a turning point in his life.
“One day I was lighting dhoop-batti (a compressed, thick incense stick) at my shop when a fellow shopkeeper, who dealt in gemstones, came to my shop and broke it. I was disgusted and angry at the same moment. It was for the first time when someone behaved like this. All those years, all I did was to earn respect in the market, and at that moment, it was all shattered into pieces. I promised myself that I’ll step into the gemstone business and will show how it’s done”, he continues to speak while looking at the moving vehicles on the road.
“I went back to my village, Qaiserganj in UP, and came back with all the money I had saved up in the past years and started the business of gemstones on the very same footpath”, he states while sitting on the same spot, right next to the juice shop where he once was an employee.
“With the blessings of my mother and the fortunate fate of my children, the business took a shot and today I stand as the sole survivor of time in this market”, he stated as tears roll down his eyes.
Over time, he set up shop in several localities, from the posh areas of Daryaganj to the crowded areas of Seelampur. Despite job offers from big jewellery showrooms and chain stores, he has never left the spot.
The reason is religious devotion. “When I used to study in a madrasa back in Qaiserganj, I had a book in Urdu, which had a sketch of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid on its front page. Since then, I was determined to come, work and live in the same area. So many years have passed and till date, not a single day would have passed of me being in Delhi and not offering prayers in the Jama Masjid. It has its own kind of peace, no matter what is going on in your life, a few hours in this area are enough to heal”, he adds.
Since demonetisation, a lot of businesses have collapsed. The drastic policy decision had a direct effect on small and not-so-stable businesses in Delhi. “Demonetisation led to the closure of a lot of shops on this very footpath. Those who survived were devastated by the pandemic. That is how I remain as the last survivor in this business”, he states.
“Many traders either closed their shops or moved to a different locality, some of them promised to return but haven’t. These are tough times for businesses. My bag of gemstones was stolen while I was still coping with the loss I incurred during the Covid lockdowns. All these things are just a part of life, and life goes on”, he concludes philosophically.
Mukeed Ahmad never had any sort of formal education, but he knew its importance. That’s why he gave his best in educating his children. While the eldest of them is a teacher, the other helps in his business and the youngest of them, Zeeshan, is a student of law.
Zeeshan says about his father: “I have seen the struggles of my father, and the changing times as well. What I learnt from him was to never lose hope. When opportunity knocks at your door, you must be prepared for it. My father has always taught me to struggle in order to attain what I wish, of which he is a living example.”
Thus this man, in spite of being a business owner, is still down to earth. Like his first employer did for him, he has provided shares in his businesses to those who work with him. He believes that their well-being and happiness is his responsibility, while he continues to sit at a small shop selling gemstones on the footpath facing the Red Fort.