Of Knife Grinders

Greater Kashmir

Knives that sharpen my memory

Silence  reigned in our mohalla during day time also. It was cluttering of wheels of tumbrels being pushed by sweating half-famished laborers singing some folk songs that occasionally pierced the quiet. Or it was the honk of an old Mercedes car owned by a family in the neighborhood that made graceful swallows to fly higher. Or it were few tongas owned by some well to do shawl merchants once or twice a day passed through main street of our locality. It had not always been a desolate street. There were stories that once upon a time it was the busiest market place of ‘Mullk-i-Kashmir’. It along with other mohallas around Jamie Masjid attracted traders from far off Central Asian states and other neighboring countries. It was the main city market that brought in vendees from all over the valley.  The market retained its importance till the Dogra rulers developed alternative markets near the first bridge and between third and fourth bridge on the river Jhelum and named them after the scions of the family, Sri Ranbir Gunj and Hari Singh High Street. It was not the end of the story. The elders would often talk of the politics    behind shifting of the traditional market place owned by the aborigines. Shifting of market established by the Sultans to new locations was ill-intended, the feudal rulers had brought in many traders from neighboring state of Punjab for these markets and the most of the business was taken over by this community.
Years before my birth my mohalla and other adjacent mohallas of the locality had lost their commercial importance but even then some of the mohallas in our locality retained their importance. One mohallas, as I have written some time back was famous for some Unani medicos (hakeems)- patients from distant villages would be seen in the wee hours queuing outside their clinics.  Some mohallas retained their importance for weaving the best Kashmiri woolen, silken and coarse cloth- there were many mohallas around historic Rozabal shrine that hummed with shuttling of the looms even in our childhood. Best ropes and best woolen rugs were produced in mohallas at the foothills of the Koh-i-Maran.  Our mohalla also had its distinction. It was known throughout city and in the adjacent villages for three shops of knife grinders (Khahrangar)- some out of ignorance called it as Khahrangar Mohalla.
 I don’t know if the people engaged in this profession had arrived in Kashmir along with the caravans of missionaries, scholars, preachers, craftsmen and skilled workers from Afghanistan and the Central Asia. Or they were part of the Mogul cantonment meant for sharpening of swords or they   were aborigines who had learnt the art of making these grinding machines from the Chinese travelers.
The knife grinding machine use to be massive round sand plate on a massive axis fixed to two small poles and it was set into motion by pulling strong rubber belts around. There was a family of knife grinders in our neighborhood. I remember on every Sunday they got busy in making the round sand plates for their knife grinding machine.   I either watched the whole process that went into making of this sand plate from small holes in the partition of wooden plank that separated our compounds from ours or climbed over it to the annoyance of mother- who often cried lest I should not break my limbs. 
The process of making the sand plate was cumbersome. It needed great expertise- white turbaned, immaculately dressed knife grinder Ramzan Joo was known for his ability of making the sand plates.
I loved watching him at work. Some red granules mixed with water would be put into two big earthen cauldrons and heated to molten stage on temporarily made hearths. The molten material inside the cauldron would be continuously stirred by a glistening wooden pestle. The red paste would be then put on a sand spread and cut into round shape by a sharp knife. A square hole would be cut into the middle. Then sand would be spread over the other side also. The plate would be allowed to cool for some time. Then a wooden axis would be passed through the round plate and it would be fixed on two temporarily fixed poles. The surface of the edged would be evened by two hot tongs. After making of one plate another plate work making another would start. The successful completion of the task used to be moment to of joy and it was celebrated by taking salt tea with special tradition bread called krip or Katalum. Then on Monday it would be fixed in the workplace.
Much before the knife grinder opened his shop- I would often see butchers with different size choppers, chefs with their knives, woodcutters with their axes and chicken sellers with their knives waiting outside his shop. There were perhaps very few shops of the knife grinders in the city and our mohalla had three of them- and there few others in some other parts of the city but the owners belonged to our mohalla only.    
I loved watching the knife grinders sharpening the knives- the sparks emanating from the red sand plate thrilled me. While on some errand job to market, I often stood more than needed outside the shop of the three knife grinders in our mohalla- till they would ward me off by sprinkling water on me. Three to four days before the commencement of the month of Muharram- there were would be more than usual rush at these shops- young Shia youth from Budgam, Zadibal, Hassanabad and other areas would come for sharpening of small knives used during the days of Ashura and rush continued till 9th of Muharram.
Like many other professionals the aborigine  knife grinders with their traditional machines have vanished from the scene yielding place to peddle machine knife grinders from outside the state.