The Marathon Runner of Haji Ali
“I have been selling books at this signal since I was 20 years old." –Mushtaq Haji a.k.a. the marathon runner of Haji Ali
It all began at Haji Ali road when Mushtaq saw a trial shoot for Procam’s Standard Chartered Half Marathon (Now Tata Mumbai Marathon) run scheduled for next day. People on their Bullets were testing cameras. They explained Mushtaq what they were doing. In that moment, it sparked a dormant passion inside him- the passion to run.
On the day of marathon, Mushtaq ran with all his heart. “I completed the half marathon in 2 hours’ time ranking at 899.” That day around 15,000 people ran together. Mushtaq ran with them.
After talking to the bikers, he ran into a runner at the famous Haji Ali Dargah and out of curiosity asked him how to participate in the marathon. The runner told him it was a Procam event and he needed a bib number to run. The runner showed him his bib that he was wearing. In naïve excitement, Mushtaq offered him Rs 500/- for the bib number. To this, the runner laughed and told him he needed to buy a form first in order to participate. That year, sadly, his form got rejected owing to some discrepancies in the paperwork. The following year, he ran like hell.
Mushtaq, 27, lives in a small chawl near Haji Ali area. “I have a mother and a sister whom I take care of along with the rent and sundry.” When his father passed away in 1996, his mother started begging at the Haji Ali signal. To help her and his younger sister, Mushtaq took to selling books and magazines. He says, “It was any day better than begging and the bread that we ate at night was of hard-earned honest money”. Before that, he had been begging since the age of 10. His daily schedule was to get up at 4 am and go out to fend.
He recalls after his father’s death, he started off with selling Mid-Day at Rs.1.50/- per copy. Then after some time, he moved on to selling magazines like Stardust, Femina, and Society. He says, “Today, it is only due to the traffic signal of Haji Ali that I can provide a roof over my family and feed them”. He pays a rent of Rs 4000/- for a small chawl room.
The Coincidental Meet
Next year after his form had been rejected, while selling magazines at the signal, he spotted a vehicle with Procam sticker. There were two men sitting inside it. He immediately recollected that the runner at Haji Ali had told him it was a ‘Procam event’. “I told them that I wished to participate in this event.” As luck would have it, they were Anil Singh and Vivek Singh, the owners of Procam. “They called me down to their office. When I went there, they helped me register and even waived off my registration fees.” And so Mushtaq was now able to participate in the Standard Chartered Half Marathon.
Mushtaq says, “Haji Ali circle is what I call the V.I.P. road. All the big businessmen and actors pass this road every day. Over the years, they all have come to know me. They often roll down their windows and ask me about my well-being. I think we all have small traces of God in us. Time and again, these people have helped and motivated me. But for me, the biggest happiness is that they ask. Like me, there are many other people for whom this signal is the only means of income that they have. We work hard and at the end of the day, what matters is, we eat bread with our own hard earned money”.
He says, “Many a time, the signal turns green in the middle of a transaction and I have to run with the car in the middle of the road to get the money”. That’s how he has grown up. He adds, “One day, I realized how liberating was the feeling of running. I wanted to experience that feeling again. And again! So I started running”.
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening, after he is done selling magazines, he starts at 8 pm from Haji Ali; runs up to Air India building and then again runs back nonstop. Right by his side, his friends ride on a bike carrying water and energy drink. This is the time when he can let go of his worries and feed his fire to be free. He is the Marathon Runner of Haji Ali.
The Tatas and the Mahindras
For those who don’t know, many big personalities pass from the Haji Ali road every day. Thanks to this, our young marathon runner is today known by Ratan Tata, Anil Mahindra and other celebrities as well. Mushtaq tells us, “Whenever they are leaving from their offices in the evening, they see me, roll down their windows and ask me about my welfare. Even their bodyguards know me so well that they don’t stop me”. He adds, “People sometimes roll up their windows or shout at me when they see me coming. They look down upon me as if I were a thief. But when I meet people like Ratan sir and Anil sir, I get amazed by their level of humility even after becoming so big in the world. And I think that’s how it should be. That way, the world would be such a better place”.
Save the Children and Akanksha Foundation have time and again come forward to help Mushtaq in his various walks of life. He had also run in the Magic Bus marathon some years ago. He also remembers Suniel Shetty and Mana Shetty for their help.
What could have been…
Mushtaq also harbors an interest in other sports. He tells us that he always wanted to be a hockey player but due to his responsibilities, he chose not to. He could have been a state level player today if it was not for these things. “Six years back, I used to play with Devinder and Yuvraj Walmiki in a ground next to Wankhede Stadium. But I couldn’t continue due to my work.”
The Walmikis now live in Marine Drive and whenever Mushtaq goes there, they happily welcome him. He says, “They always receive me with pleasure and offer tea and snacks. Anyway, I wanted to help my mother support the household. So that was my decision”.
“I just run in these marathons for my own happiness. It gives me a sense of flying and independence. I have never asked for money to run. God is great and I have often come across good people who help on their own accord.” He further speaks in retrospect, “ Earlier times were different and today is different. On most days, I don’t’ understand what’s happening. I just lose the perspective and feel tired. It is on such days that I run”.
Procam’s Standard Chartered Half Marathon was just the beginning for our marathon runner of Haji Ali. He has many more miles to cover and much more to accomplish. And like him, lakhs of children on our streets hold on to their precious dreams in the hope that they will come true one day.