What can we learn from a Knife Sharpening Man?

Like many superstitions that get carried on from one generation to the next by word of mouth, there goes a belief in many parts of India that if you idly play with scissors in a rapid, cutting motion, it disturbs harmony in the house, leading to fights and disagreements, especially for the person engaged in such act. Then, there are other baseless superstitions associated with gifting. Never gift someone a Taj Mahal, never keep someone else’s handkerchief and many many more. What is the root of such ‘superstitions’? Why have these been passed on for so many years? One possible explanation about why such beliefs originated is that our elders lived at a different time, in different situations where modes of entertainment were few and far between. By getting together and coming up with such superstitions, they could not only amuse themselves but probably in their own ways, add to ‘common wisdom’.

Life was simple in those days. One had plenty of time for cooking up stories, which were often told and retold. Women would be respected for their gift of the gab, a most revered quality in social circles. People would meet in person to ‘chat’ and not over computer networks. Life really was simple. Happiness was not defined by bank balances. A sight of such simplicity in modern days is rare, but all the more refreshing. If one has the knack for finding happiness and feeling joy in the smallest of things, it is easy to find reasons on the streets of India. And that too, in spite of the much talked of poverty woes.

On an ordinary day, I found one such reason in a crowded street of East Delhi – It was the sight of a man working on a strange, wooden machine. At first glance, it was not the machine that drew my attention. It was the smile on his face. What made this rugged, old man so happy? I was almost jealous. I am not one of those curious people, yet I wanted to know his secret. My mother told me how he is often seen in our colony, sharpening knives and scissors, for everyone, from the household women to the fruit vendors. He did it all, with his strange, old machine that he peddled with his foot. He sharpened knives between two wheels in motion based on principles of friction.

The Knife Sharpening Man I Met

The Knife Sharpening Man I Met (Photo Credit: Unnati Narang)

I walked up to him, noticing the subtlety and the complete bliss with which he used his hands and feet to add sharpness to these common instruments. In a world where businesses are constantly looking for measurable value additions and yet the road never seems to end for them, this man seemed to me a new form of enterprise, one engaged in providing a service so minor and yet so majorly important even in today’s use-and-throw culture. As I stood there, he told me how he had been doing the same work for the past two decades. “Sharpening cutting instruments? Really?” I asked, puzzled, “Don’t you get bored?” I am not sure if he understood what ‘bored’ meant. He was enjoying it far too much, with no signs of monotony or mundaneness. I asked him again, “Don’t you get tired?”

He told me his tales, his travels from a small place in Kashmir, where he was from to the city of Mumbai and finally, Delhi. In the colony, every single person seemed to know him, every fruit and vegetable seller. On seeing my camera pointed to click his photo, his fan following gathered around, encouraging him to ‘model’ for me. It felt like he had a family of his own, even in this city so new to him and so hostile to most. The warmth that flew from him would mingle with the polluted air and many rude stares from those passing by, many of whom tried bargaining. He stuck to his twenty rupees for three knives! I loved the conviction. I love the simplicity. Above all, I loved the joy he experienced in his work. Every knife he sharpened seemed like his first one, the same excitement of two decades ago, the same delicacy and care for his ‘machine’ and yet, much more dexterity and artfulness.

In a world where people are shifting jobs, running after ‘perfect’ careers, creative fields, tons of money and other pleasures, this man finds everything in the simple task of giving the right edge to cutting instruments. How does he know he has got the right edge? He does it just by listening to the sound of the two blades as he performs a cutting gesture, just the way our elders warn us not to. They say my idle clicking of the scissors would disrupt all harmony. For this man, the ‘noise’ talks of his livelihood, of his single pursuit, of a companionship with a machine he’s carried from the valleys of Kashmir to the crowded streets of India’s most populous cities. For this man, the clicking and cutting, speaks of life itself, a constant motivation to carry his machine on his shoulder every time he is on a move. At sixty five, this strength is anything but physical. It is an undying motivation to go on doing something so ordinary with extraordinary and rare happiness. A land of incredible stories, India can boast of many brave men. Some are noticed, while others embrace glory every day on the streets, to be spoken of only in an unknown writer’s verses.

See all articles by Unnati Narang.


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