Nazakat was my tailor in all the years I lived in Bhopal. A gaunt man, unfailingly polite and cheerful, he had his shop in Manisha Market in Shahpura. He had no assistants and did all the work himself, producing neatly tailored salwar-kameez sets. His wife sometimes accompanied him to the shop and would sit stitching on buttons or hooks if required. His customers included women in the Bharatnagar slum as well as from the middle-class Shahpura colony. He lived in a village outside Bhopal and would cycle to and from work each day. Festival times were busy and happy times, and one had to wait many days to get clothes stitched. Completed outfits would be hung neatly on hangers on a rod to a side of the store.
Demonetization was the first blow. Suddenly money was tight, the number of customers dropped sharply. People lost jobs in the informal sector by the thousands. (The hotel near my house that employed eight men shut down as the owner could not pay the wages - he had to choose between paying the workers full wages or purchasing provisions with the small amount of money he could withdraw each day). Women from the slum stopped getting new clothes stitched. Only a few completed outfits would be hanging up, and festival time did not bring a rush of orders.
After a couple of years, business started looking up again though it never picked up to the pre-demonetization level. Nazakat diversified into readymade garments - nighties, underwear and socks. These were in great demand and he was getting back to being cheerful again.
Then came the lockdowns during Covid, and Nazakat's business never recovered from the blow. Apart from the days the shop had to be kept locked, very few people came to purchase anything even after it reopened. Not even the underwear got sold (remember the men's underwear index?). He was also competing with cheap, synthetic ready-made clothes that are mass-produced and were now freely available. I rarely had to wait for my clothes to be stitched.
By 2021, Nazakat was not earning enough to pay the rent of his shop, and had decided to give it up and to move back to his village. Several days he had only one customer the whole day - someone who would make a small purchase He was no longer cheerful. He was desperate to finish selling the stock already purchased and ended up selling it cheap to someone so that he could recover at least a part of the money. He left for his village and I missed seeing him at his sewing machine in his shop. Soon after, my husband and I moved to Bangalore.
I kept sending material to him through people going to Bhopal and he would send the tailored clothes back.
I met him last August in Bhopal - and was shocked at his appearance. He was even more gaunt than before, and was breathless. He said he could no longer cycle and could walk only a little bit before becoming breathless. I was not sure whether it was his heart or his lungs that was the source of the problem. He needed work, he said, and I gave him several sets of clothes to be stitched. (When they were returned, I could make out that Nazakat was not well: the cut was not as precise as before, the stitching a bit eccentric).
It turned out that he had had tuberculosis that had destroyed large parts of his lungs. He had what is known as COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And that had led to heart failure. A bronchodilator helped him to some extent but not much. He was also severely malnourished. Had the loss of earnings worsened his illness and his COPD? Had he and his family been eating enough to stay well-nourished?
We kept in touch over the phone, and I would call him every few weeks. Sometimes he would say he was doing ok, with no breathlessness, sometimes he would say he had no appetite. I urged him to eat eggs every day and meat whenever he could afford it. He refused my offer of monetary help, saying his son was earning now. But how well he earned, and whether they were eating well, I could not say. He would always thank me for enquiring about his health. "Aapka aur mera ek vishesh hi rishta hai" he told me in his weak voice. You and I have a special relationship.
Last month when I called him there was no answer. A week later, the cellphone service said the number was no longer in use.
This evening I got a phone call from Bhopal telling me that Nazakat had passed away last month.
I mourn the loss of a friend, a gentleman. What really killed him, though?