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The Knife Juggler of Harola

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on June 7, 2009 2 Comments

In an effort to buy chairs in bulk from a warehouse for my project in a city in North India, we ended up in a rather remarkable part of town that I have never had occasion to visit before. We didn’t have the exact address when we started; my mother’s friend’s daughter’s husband had “heard of a place” somewhere near Harola, a bustling jhuggi not far from where I live. We were going to drive around the general area and ask people, a kind of a “social” GPS that most people use to locate places in India.

Within minutes, we ended up in the middle of a kind of farmer’s market. Fruit sellers were selling all kinds of seasonal wonders like lichees, (dozens of varieties of) mangoes, melons, Java plums, “jamrul‘s, and watermelons. Shoe sellers spread out Nike and Reebok knockoffs at rock bottom prices. “Women’s” stalls had everything from earrings to काजल (kohl) to colorful बिंदी (bindi). Brightly colored Chinese cloth lanterns hung from one stall. And towering over all the stalls were these massives लाठी (sticks) that are used in construction sites to scaffold buildings. Cycles, scooters, rikshaws, taxis, pedestrians, cows, dogs, and cars jostled for space in the tiny stretch of road. As we parked and stepped out into the street, the young fruitsellers started yelling out to my mother: “माँ, इधर आओ!” (Ma, come here). I was followed by cries of “दीदी इधर आओ! ” [Elder sister! Come here!]. Though we didn’t end up buying anything, we managed to get (pretty solid) directions to the warehouse.

Just across the street from the warehouse, in a makeshift hut, with two walls and something that could only said to aspire to be a roof, a barber was giving a young man a “Shah Rukh” haircut. A knife, for shaving, lay partially immersed in a frothy soap solution in a half-full pink plastic mug on a table facing them. Two Old Spice aftershave bottles rested against the edge. Several men sat patiently on a coir (coconut fiber) mat by the “open” wall, waiting patiently for their turns, sipping milky tea from earthen cups. As we began to cross the street, a massive procession blocked our path. There were about two dozen people dressed in their “synthetic best,” with four-five men at the front drumming ढोलक (dholaks), holding some burning incense sticks, and singing a Hindu wedding song. In the middle of the procession, two women-who I presume were the brides-were wearing the traditional wedding red sarees with gold embroidery, with thin red and gold veils, with open tin cans on their heads (I wonder why?). As they moved on, the singers invited passersby to join the procession.

After a rather short time at the furniture showroom, we headed back to our car. As we neared it, we noticed a massive crowd of men on the street right beside our car. I initially thought there had been an accident, until I saw the smiling faces….and then the dark, tall man’s head rising above the crowd, with two kirpans (Indian knives) balanced on his forehead. My mother and I stood still, mesmerized by the man, tempted to look-and to look away. He then slowly removed the knives, and began juggling them. As he juggled them, he kept up a steady stream of conversation with his mother, sitting Indian style near him, on a small Kashmiri rug. It was a strange kind of a back and forth: they were addressing each other as if no one else was there. As I watched, hypnotized by the performance, what was most amazing to me was not the breathtakingly skillful knife-throwing/catching, but how dexterously and effortlessly he “managed” the conversation with his mother. Speaking some unidentified Hindi dialect, the duo made mundane talk a most extra-ordinary event.

It’s not the first time that the everyday has humbled me. It won’t be the last.

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2 Responses to “The Knife Juggler of Harola”

  1. daveski on: 26 July 2009 at 8:52 am

    How interesting that the global positioning social network brought you to this scene. That’s a pretty funny concept–and probably more useful, humane, and interesting than electronic GPSs, I’d guess!

    I like the rich detail here…in my media-saturated world it’s rare for language to bear the burden of representing so much multi-sensory experience, but I can picture the scene and its sounds, sights, smells quite clearly.

    Of course, though, I had to see what a kirpan looks like, and wouldn’t you know it, like most other things, the search led me back to U.S. Homeland Security regulations:

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 1 August 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Thank you so much for your comments, Daveski, and the image! 🙂

    Much appreciated!

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