Zzzzz-zzzzzz-zzzzz go the two whirring wheels in the shabby, 100-sq-ft shanty in Dharavi. As if competing with the loud buzz, item songs from a recent Salman Khan film blare out of an incongruously fancy steel-and-grey digital music system.
Sunil Kumar, 21, the self-proclaimed ‘biggest fan of Salman Khan’, sits behind the sharpening wheel wearing blue jeans, chunky finger rings, a green sweatband on his right wrist and a black T-shirt that reads ‘Rock The Core’.
He doesn’t know what that means, he admits sheepishly, because he cannot read English. “But I can read Hindi. I have studied till Class 4,” he adds proudly.
Kumar has been working at this shanty for three years, and living in its attic.
Even with his diminutive frame, he has to stoop to enter the loft where he sleeps and spends most of his free time. But it’s still a better living than the rest of his family has on their small wheat farm in a village near Lucknow, he says.
Kumar starts his day at 8 am, with a breakfast of tea, bun-muska (buttered bread) and omelette at a nearby eatery. At 9 am, he opens the store and, after a small prayer, switches on his electric knife-sharpening machines.
Work begins as soon as the shutter is raised. “There are many tailors in the area, and they all want their scissors sharpened quickly so they can start their day’s work,” says Kumar.
Kumar first cleans the rust on the iron blades by rubbing it on the bigger wheel, then sharpens the edges of the blades on the smaller one.
“I have to concentrate hard while working; one mistake and I could slash my hand,” he says. “I no longer take phone calls when I’m at the wheel. That has cost me several injuries in the past.”
Kumar’s hands are calloused and rough, covered in innumerable cuts. “For smaller cuts, I use band-aids, but thrice I have had to rush to the doctor because the cuts just wouldn’t stop bleeding,” he says. Every six months, Kumar takes a tetanus injection, to keep the cuts from getting infected.
Attending to about 25 customers, Kumar earns Rs 250 a day — most of which, Rs 150, goes on his three meals.
“Each job takes 10 to 15 minutes, but customers are always in a hurry. That’s why I don’t wear plastic goggles… they get sweaty and have to be cleaned, and there’s no time for that,” he says.
At 1 pm, Kumar breaks for a lunch of biryani and dal fry at the same eatery. Then the pace gets more leisurely, with a smattering of maids and housewives coming by with kitchen knives.
“Business in this section has dropped considerably because more people have started using steel knives, which they throw away when blunted,” says Kumar. “Still, this is a better life than carrying my sharpening wheel on my shoulder and going from door to door. At least I can work from the comfort of my shop.”
At 5 pm, Kumar takes another break, for chai. “This break also helps relax my eyes, which begin to burn and water if I’ve been working at the machine for a long time,” says Kumar.
At 9 pm, Kumar down the shutters of his shop and heads to the eatery for a dinner of rice and dal fry, then returns to his loft to watch some TV or listen to the radio before retiring to bed at midnight.
On his day off, Friday, he takes in at least one Bollywood film, spending the rest of the time at Juhu Beach, Shivaji Park or Haji Ali with friends.
Once a year, Kumar takes a month off and returns to his village to visit his family — parents, elder brother and a sister. “Right now, we are all saving up for my sister’s wedding,” he says. “After that, my dream is to open my own knife-sharpening shop in Dharavi.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)