Opposite the Express Avenue mall, a round clock-face sits on top of ‘M. Srinivasan Watch and Clock Repairer.’
“The shop has been here since 1942,” says M.S. Bakthavatsalam, its second-generation owner. “Before Independence, the Madras Club was just across the road. (Later, it became The Indian Express office, and now, EA). Britishers used to frequent the club, and my grandfather, whose hobby was repairing watches, started servicing their timepieces. My father learnt the art from him, and since I was always interested in the mechanics of clocks, I used to take them apart and study them,” he says. He recalls helping his father by cleaning the clock parts and watching him assemble them.
Sitting in the high-ceilinged shop – definitely cooler than the searing heat outside - Bakthavatsalam talks about yesteryears wrist watches, and the patience and skill needed to repair them. “Those days West End, Favre Leuba, Rolex and Tissot were popular. We also saw many pocket watches; they had gear wheels and a winding system. Spares were also readily available. Do you know that engine drivers those days kept time with pocket watches? The watches came in palm-sized silver cases, with ‘Indian Railways’ embossed on them,” he says.
Back then, wall clocks too were shipped in from all over the world, mainly from German, French, Japanese and American manufacturers. “Many had the Westminster Chime, but some like this one,” he says, pointing to a metal cased wall-clock behind him, “do not strike. This one is a Smith Enfield, made in Great Britain.” Even though there are a few old-fashioned wall clocks around the white washed walls, Bakthavatsalam says that now, the electronic clocks from the Far East dominate the market. “Alarm clocks are vanishing,” he says, fetching a small one from a wooden cupboard. “When this one rings in a lonely place, it can be heard for 1/4 km. But it was necessary as houses were large then.” When he makes it rings, the noise pierces my ears; as do the long bus horns, high-pitched sirens and squeaky auto-rickshaws from the road outside…
But it wasn’t always this crowded here, reminisces the smiling 66-year-old. “After my SSLC from Wesley High School, my father advised me to pursue a course in Electronics. I got a job with Hindustan Teleprinters in 1967, and for the next 38 years, worked there and helped my father in the shop. I took over the shop in 2004, and my father died three years later,” he says. Even today, he uses many of his father’s tools, imported from England. Opening the last draw of his wooden desk, he shows me scissors and a cutter, made of highly tempered steel, which have never been re-sharpened despite 50 years of use.
The building itself is over a 100 years old, says Bakthavatsalam, and the high sloping roof is supported by original Burma teak rafters, and topped by country tiles. Business, however, is dull, he acknowledges. “Very few old wrist-watches and clocks come for repair. Now it is only battery changing work. Because the rent is not very high, we manage; my nephew will run the shop after me,” he says, adding that he has now diversified into mobile phone recharges to keep afloat. “People now rely on mobile phones even to tell time,” he smiles. I tell him I’m guilty of the same, not having worn a watch in many years. “Me too! See?” he points to his bare left wrist. “I only wear a wrist watch when I go out!”
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)