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 .
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.
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).
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.