Though not that visible anymore, the traditional knife-sharpener is still around, trying to make ends meet

Many years ago, the sight of a knife-sharpener wandering the streets of the city, carrying his improvised cycle-wheel device, was a fairly common one.

Today, they are not so visible on the streets of Chennai, but the traditional knife-sharpener is still around, battling each day and trying to make ends meet.

For Lala, a 37-year-old knife-sharpener from Harichandrapuram in Tiruvallur district, the day begins early. He rises by 3 a.m. in order to catch the first train from Thiruvalangadu to Chennai at 3.50 a.m. 

Harichandrapuram is a close-knit Muslim community of 500-odd homes. Most of the men from the village follow a similar routine, commuting to the city each day where they fan out to different areas and earn their daily bread by sharpening and selling knives. The village lacks basic sanitation and healthcare facilities.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years now. It’s the only work I know,” says Lala. “I leave in the morning with Rs. 50 in my pocket and my machine. On a good day, I earn about Rs. 300 with which my family and I must make do. On bad days, I make no money at all.”

Lala has his first meal of the day at 1 p.m. as he prepares to board a train back to Thiruvalangadu. At each station along the way, he is joined by more knife-sharpeners returning home after the day’s work.

“We cover the city by bus or foot and we make at the most Rs. 20 for sharpening one knife. This isn’t enough to educate our children beyond school level,” says Jeelani, a community leader who’s been practicing the trade for 30 years.

“Our income has gone up marginally over the years, but expenses have risen even more,” he says, adding, “I don’t want my children to follow me into this trade.”

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