Watch old-timers go

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He’s an old-timer because his establishment was handed down from father to son. An old-timer because he is thorough in the mechanics of his trade and personally carries out all repairs

OLD IS GOLDComfortingly longwinded and appropriately scatterbrainedPhoto: K. Pichumani
OLD IS GOLDComfortingly longwinded and appropriately scatterbrainedPhoto: K. Pichumani

What d’you call someone who wears an antique watch? An old-timer. This ghastly joke is merely an effervescent expression of my giddy relief at having finally recovered my “HMT quartz” which has been in hiding for the past 18 months. It’s the only watch I’ve ever bought — the others I own were gifted me by kith and kin — and since its sentimental value far exceeds its cost price (I paid Rs. 391 in 1993) its disappearance had left me downcast.

It went missing in, of all places, an old watch shop. The owner is an old-timer by nature though not in years. He’s an old-timer because his establishment was handed down from father to son. An old-timer because he is thorough in the mechanics of his trade and personally carries out all repairs, unlike in chain stores where some clueless underling packs off your broken item “to the factory”. And finally, he’s an old-timer because he’s comfortingly longwinded and appropriately scatterbrained.

I don’t mind the garrulity, in fact I rather enjoy our (one-sided) conversations each time I get a cell replaced. A new cell now and then is all my watch had required for the best part of its life, but when it crossed 20 it began to demand general upkeep as well. I usually reserve 45 minutes for a visit to his shop — five minutes to fit the cell, forty to supply news, views and anecdotes on matters local, national, international and horological: why watch cells don’t last as long as they used to, what can be done to solve the city’s parking problems, how radiation is causing infertility, his blueprint for a one-stop complex of civil and criminal courts in the suburbs that would at one stroke decongest the inner city and rescue the public from needless running around.

It’s the scatterbrained part that’s a potential threat to his business, for customers less tolerant than I would not put up with it. His workplace is untidy, with disembowelled watches strewn across tabletops and spilling out of drawers, and while this might seem charmingly old-fashioned it has its drawbacks, as I was soon to find out. In mid-2012 my watch stopped working altogether. The ‘movement’ had conked out, he said. Did the company manufacture spare parts? Yes, but they had to be fetched from the godown. I waited. Then it was stocktaking time at the godown. I waited some more. I kept calling and dropping in but the consignment took a long time coming, and by the time it did, my watch had been misplaced.

With a vague swish of his hand he said, “It is there somewhere,” a refrain I was to tire of hearing in the months to come. He had searched in all the drawers. “I hope it hasn’t gone into the Box...” his voice trailed off ominously. I had heard of but never seen this Box, which appeared to be some sort of magician’s prop into which watches were sucked in either to vanish entirely or to pop up inexplicably in random places. Once he narrated how a woman had dropped in to collect her watch that day, little knowing that he had misplaced it. “Luckily I found it just today morning when I was searching for something else, and I was able to quickly repair it and give it to her,” he said with a cheery laugh. Let’s just say I wasn’t amused.

It was at around this time that a pertinent news item appeared. Certain old HMT watches were being treated as antiques and sold for a small fortune. Although my faith in old-timers is near unshakeable, a grain of doubt crept in. I grumpily decided to boycott him and found an 80-year-old shop on Commercial Street to which I took my other watches for cell replacements. Guess what? A fire broke out in this shop and the first floor was gutted! Perhaps it was a sign from up high that I should renew my contact with the original old-timer. This year I rang him on a Monday at 10.30 a.m. and hollowly enquired after my lost property. “It’s ready,” he replied casually. “Just call me before you come.” I nearly leapt out of my chair. “Why didn’t you call and tell me you’d found it?” I bellowed. He mumbled something about having lost a lot of numbers because his phone... you know the rest.

I didn’t waste a second. He said he was going to the bank right away, would be back by 11.30 a.m., leave for lunch at 1 p.m. and return at 4 p.m. (ah, the good old Bangalore siesta). I dashed out and got there by 12.40 p.m. He was standing outside a darkened shop, chatting with someone, ready to down the shutters at a moment’s notice. “Early lunch?” I asked. “No lunch,” he said. “I have to go to the railway station. Wife’s sister is coming.” And the clincher: “My wife is waiting downstairs.” In our briefest ever encounter he rapidly handed over my precious timepiece and hastily took Rs. 320 from me, waiving a five I didn’t have.

“It’s like a new watch now,” he told me. I suppose it has undergone the equivalent of a multi-organ transplant. A gratifying thought. Perhaps I can squeeze another 30 years out of it, but first, I must decide who to bequeath it to.

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