Blade runner

He’s not retiring Replicants and he’s not smuggling Samurai swords across borders but he does respect the blade – the sharper he can get it, the better. He’s the door-to-door knife sharpener that comes by every Sunday. Along with the wailing call of the Kabadiwala for ‘payper and bothal’, the high pitched grating and sparking of his portable rotating knife sharpening stone, attached to a foot pedal, is part of the Sunday morning bird song .

Portable knife sharpening business

Portable knife sharpening business

This guy has been sharpening knives like his father before him and his father before him. For the past 45 years he and his family have been in the knife sharpening business and this same contraption has survived since the 1960s. He carries this stand with him, which holds the foot-pedal attached to a bicycle wheel which turns the sharpening stone. Once a year he goes with his savings to Chennai to buy a new sharpening stone. Just carrying this device around on buses, is the back breaking part. This isn’t a very prosperous business but someone’s got to do it I guess. If you’ve never seen one of these guys, here’s a good youtube video of a guy in Mumbai ‘Jack of all Blades’, that uses his bicycle to transport his machine and the pedals to turn it.

What he does looks easy but it’s not. It takes years of practice to know just how much pressure to apply on different types of blades, the angle of contact and the speed of the rotating stone. It’s hypnotic watching the stone start spinning, then the first contact of blade on stone with fiery red sparks jerks you out of the trance only to lull you back in as the knife blade curves and flows through his hands, like water flowing over stone.  This man has a skill that only years of muscle memory and intuition, make him an expert at what he does. He wore a quiet smile across his face as he was shaping that blade, a calm serene look of absorbed concentration and pure joy at a job well done.

Blade on sharpening stone

Blade on sharpening stone

With the plethora of machine replicated artefacts, people who work with their hands are accorded so much respect; but only in some professions – surgeons, sculptors and artists, musicians. The cobblers of Italy, who hand craft the most expensive leather shoes are showered with accolades and brand names. But in India, the lowly cobbler who sits by the side of the road or never fails at house calls with his bag of battered brushes, needles and sewing hooks and eyes is hardly given the respect he deserves. These are people who are eking out a living but providing a much needed service that everyone in this country has at some point needed. A cobbler may not have the same importance in society as a surgeon but try getting a surgeon to sew a split shoe together (or a shirt button).

Foot pedal to control the speed of rotating stone

Foot pedal to control the speed of rotating stone

Knife sharpeners and cobblers are major contributors to the recycle and reuse culture of India. We don’t just go buy a new pair of shoes or a new bag just because of one little tear, we don’t hide the dull knife away and buy a new one. This is definitely a humble occupation and a humbling experience it was watching this master of the blade at work –  one of those quintessentially Indian occupations. From Samurai swords and Excalibur to the humble kitchen chef’s knife, there’s nothing like a good blade to get the job done.


About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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8 Responses to Blade runner

  1. tara says:

    wow so nice! 🙂 really loved the’re right.very hypnotic and highly satisfying to see how sharp the knife becomes at the end of the job!
    after reading this i was reminded of gandhi road and how amma used to take didi and i there. i remember walking down the road soaking in all the sights-cobblers, the phulka man making 10 at a time, the toy people walking around expertly advertising their toys while carrying lots of stuff at the same time..(and lots more)
    very nice article 🙂 🙂 i really enjoyed reading it 🙂

  2. h englebert says:

    mr. ray mears teach good knive sharpening techniques. with japan made naguro stone. good therapy for tension, sharpen kniving. best wishes…

  3. nandini korula says:

    So right.
    My knives pile up ,blunt ones not thrown away in the blind hope that they will someday meet the blade runner….I believe the breed still exists-one has to go looking though

    For that matter even cobblers have become scarce.

  4. shyla says:

    oh Gayu, send him my way-I have so many things to sharpen which I could never throw away!

  5. Tripti Jacob says:

    Lovely post Gayu…and Shiks, I haven’t thought about that one in ages.

    • thank you! if you can think of any more of these interesting artisans let me know – like the coir rope weaver, the kabadiwalas, the cobblers etc

  6. Very nice! Reminded me of the puns in a song ‘Scissor Grinder’ from the most basic ‘John Thompson’ piano books we used as kids: ‘Now is sharp, that was flat. Scissor Grinders tend to that’!

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