"Older women ask me to sharpen aruvamanais that were their wedding gift. The younger lot prefer knives. Others just throw out old knives and buy new ones, that’s the trend now!"

Abdul Jaleel places his knife sharpener on the pavement, near a park in Mylapore. The midday sun is fierce, and we stand in the shade. “I’ve always lived in Otteri,” he tells me, “but all my customers are in Mylapore and Mandaveli. I take a bus at 6.30 a.m. and come here.” I ask if he carries his machine around everyday. “No, no, it weighs nearly 20kg. I leave it behind every evening in a house in Mandaveli. Here, try lifting it,” he says. I try — it’s very heavy — and I wonder how he walks around balancing it on his shoulder. “I’ve been doing it for years,” says the 60-year-old.

When he was 12, he started work as a sharpener’s assistant, and made Rs.5 to Rs. 10 a week. When he turned 20, he bought his own machine, and charged Rs.5 per knife. “Today, it’s Rs. 80 for large scissors or aruvamanais. Hospitals, canteens, flats, houses — I have loyal customers everywhere. But I feed seven people on my income, and rent for a single room is Rs. 3,000… making ends meet is very difficult,” he says.

Of Abdul’s five children, only one son has followed his vocation, but he has a motorised shop. As for Abdul, only work and worship matter. “I go to the mosque regularly. I’d like to go to Mecca someday.” The sharpener he uses is ripe for change. It’s held together by wire, after having been knocked down by a car. But a new frame costs Rs.3,000; the sharpening stone another Rs.1,000.

“Look at this stone; it used to be 12 inches wide, now it’s worn down to half that. I need to change it next month.” As we chat, a man stops his motorcycle and calls out, “Anna, please go to that house, they want their knives sharpened.” Abdul nods and continues: “Older women ask me to sharpen aruvamanais that were their wedding gift. The younger lot prefer knives. Others just throw out old knives and buy new ones, that’s the trend now!”

As he speaks, he readies a pair of scissors. “See, the edges don’t meet,” he says, and gets pliers out of a brown leather bag to fix it. He’s a picture of concentration, as he holds the scissors over the sharpening stone, pedalling with his right leg. The cycle-wheel turns, the stone whirrs, and the scissors’ metal edge erupts in sparks. After sharpening an aruvamanai, he gently polishes its edge with kaanankallu. “If you don’t do this, the edges will be frayed and cut your finger.”

Abdul then packs up and lifts his sharpener to his shoulder. “It would be nice to have a sharpening shop; but where is the money for that?” he asks. “All I have now is good health; that’s my only wealth.”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)