Thriving Mindfully

Knives

Little Ahmed always had a sharpness in his intellect. He was ‘tez’, sharp, as they used to call him. And that became part of his name.

Tez Ahmed.

A fitting surname, a consolation of orphanhood, a name that represented his nature. That, sadly, was the only consolation in his life. With all the sharpness and promise, the 10-year old boy began making a living by sharpening knives as a hawker. First, he carried his gear around – a little wooden box, a small sharpening stone, a ruffled rag, and a beseeching call. Early on, he got business out of compassion. A little boy trying to make a dignified living. He had dreams. And some did come true.

A decade later, he could afford a bicycle. A couple of years down the line, he put together enough money to buy the bicycle’s better half – a disc-shaped sharpening stone. He was still young and tez. He thought of getting both these new possessions engaged. He coupled the rear wheel of the bicycle with the sharpening stone housed around the bike-frame with a rubber belt. He sat on the carrier at the back and pedalled. The sharpening stone rotated as the rear wheel whizzed in circles. Blunt blades screeched and obeyed his deft handling. It was a sparkling show. He was the priest, and the pedal and the rotating stone went around in circles, as a final rite of marriage, around searing flames of friction.
That ritual is still underway.
 
With a bicycle, he could cover a whole lot of ground. He knew the town like the back of his hand. The town knew him as antiquity on wheels. He spent his life bicycling around the town, wailing at the top of his voice, inviting people to get their knives and scissors sharpened.

A whole lot changed for everyone in half a century of Ahmed’s work-life. The streets got widened, renamed, dug-up, re-laid, and re-named again. Ahmed and his life were the only constants. He has been living in the same hutment for as far back he can trace his life. One could say, even with a bicycle, he never got too far. Perhaps it was the weight of the heavy sharpening stone.

The business has been on a decline for years now. It was just too slow a change to take notice of. People don’t prize their kitchen knives as much as they used to once. Now, they throw them away and buy new ones. He fears the same fate for himself. He is a fading voice of an old man, in the daily soundscape of the town, like the hum of the wind in a dwindling forest.

Sometimes he wonders if he should change his means of livelihood. But he’s too old to make a switch now. He will pedal his way to the end. He heads out every morning, on his trip around the city, hoping to find an owner of blunt knives.

Today, Ahmed is truly, an old man. Life has come full circle. His business, like his early days, relies on compassion. An old man, trying to make a dignified living. He had dreams. Most never came true.
 
It’s a cloudy day today. These clouds promise no rain, but they drench you nevertheless. You sweat away, and they laugh, as if calling out your folly in hoping for rain. These clouds never gave an empty promise. All the emptiness was in our hoping. Ahmed too feels as if life is laughing at him somewhere, just like the clouds. He has been wailing his lungs out all day long. The sharpening stone is becoming blunt by the day. It’s late in the evening. He walks back home; deprived of dignity, bereft of hope.

On the way back, he decides to sharpen a knife. The only knife left in his old wooden box.  He has made up his mind. Tonight, the sharpened blade will glide smoothly across his wrist. He feels it is the destiny he’s been preparing for all his life. To sharpen a knife so well that it sails through the skin like butter, giving no pain. Tonight, he feels, is his final night.

He makes his way into the winding roads in the ghetto. He looks at all the little things in the neighbourhood that he once found fascinating. None of them seems to have enough power to change his mind. He reaches outside his house. He jumps on the bicycle saddle and couples the rear wheel to the sharpening stone with a belt. He pedals, to the final destination of his journey. The whirr invites someone out of the house next door.

It’s Rubina, a newly-wed girl whose dreams of bliss are still fresh. Her sparkling eyes speak of the beauty screened by the burqa. She goes around as a house cook in a middle-class neighbourhood. When she cooks, the neighbourhood knows.

What’s missing in her life is the taste of marital bliss. Marriage is a gamble. She was dealt with an unfair hand. She is still learning to hide all her pain and bruises. The burqa helps.

She’s young still, too young to give up yet. It’s a fresh day, and she tries to make things at home better. And she needs Ahmed’s help.

‘Salaam Chacha, Sab Khairiyat (All good)?’

Ahmed applies the brakes and impedes the final run of the stone sharpener. It comes to a gradual halt. Ahmed looks at Rubina. He smiles with a tenderness he had forgotten to have nursed all these years.

‘Rubina. Yes, all good.’

‘I need a little help, Chacha.’

‘Yes, tell me, dear.’

‘I am baking a cake. I need a knife to cut it. But I want one of those blunt cake knives they show on TV. Not the sharp kitchen knife I use at home. I know you are in the business of sharpening knives. But I was wondering if you could blunt a knife as well?’

Ahmed laughs at her unusual request.

Zaroor, Rubina. In 50 years, you’re the first person who asked me to give them a blunt knife! I have a good knife I was planning on sharpening tonight. I guess its fate lay in being blunt. Well…when do you want it?

‘My husband will be home in half an hour. Before that.’

Give me 15 minutes and you’ll have it. Okay?’

Ji, Chacha Jaan.’

‘Oh wait! What’s the occasion? A cake!’

‘It is my birthday, Chacha!’ She wails as she runs inside to check on the cake.

The houses are built much like a cake. With porous walls, with roofs as thin as the gathering crust. The scented smoke snakes up into the sky. The neighbourhood longs for a taste

Ahmed inhales and whispers, ‘May Allah bless you, my child.’

He digs his hand inside the toolbox. He lay his hands on the only knife left with him. The fate of the knife has changed within minutes. So has Ahmed’s.

In 15 minutes, Rubina has a shapely butter knife in her hands.

‘This is exactly what I wanted, Chacha Jaan. Just how I saw it on TV. It will slide through the cake smoothly. I hope my husband enjoys the cake tonight,’ she says.

She hands a slice of warm cake to old Ahmed on a steel plate.

‘Oh, the aroma! Glad I can still eat this with my missing teeth!’ He laughs, with a full display of his falling troop.

He goes inside his little house with the cake in his hand. The bulb flickers in indecision. Ahmed savours the sweet interaction with Rubina. He falls asleep too soon, after eating the delicious slice of cake. The smell and the smile lingers.

Late at night, there’s a familiar thud from Rubina’s home.

Rubina weeps silently in the kitchen. A drop of blood, the stench of cheap liquor, a departure of dreams of bliss. In her home, a familiar stranger lay on the bed, passed out cold. This was her fate, approved by law, decreed by society.

Whimpering in a corner, with the cake-smeared blunt knife still in her hand, she wonders,

What if she had borrowed a sharp knife instead?
Would she be daring enough to slit her husband’s throat?
Or would she be a coward enough to slit her own wrist?

Will she ever have the courage to end this, once and for all?
She knows, she will rather hope for the impossible, than wield a sharp knife.

Thoughts swirl. The wound is still fresh.

What was the point of baking a cake? It fails to bring any sweetness to her life. What good did asking for a blunt knife do anyway?

She wonders. A teardrop lands on her cheek. A raindrop lands on the roof.

Next door, Tez Ahmed lay asleep in his bed. Crumbs of the cake still rest on his sparse beard. And there is a smile on his face.



1 Comment

  1. Monalisa Das

    Hi Sreenath,
    Wah ..what a dramatic end to your short story…Simple people like Ahmed Chacha are now jobless….but always living in hope to earn their living…
    Poor fate of Rubina….she couldn’t Enjoy her birthday…

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