The timekeepers of Chennai

P. L. Jose, proprietor of Roxy Watch Co. Photo: R. Ravindran.  

Time will come to a standstill if G.T. Keswani, P.L. Jose, J. Liaqath, and Mahaboob Pasha stop working. Not literally, of course. They are watch mechanics to whom time-pieces open out their hearts to be fixed. To them, the watch is akin to a living being with a beating heart.

“A lot of factors ensure that the watch keeps ticking,” says Jose, the proprietor of Roxy Watch Co. at Devaraja Mudali Street, George Town. He’s reading the newspaper at a table surrounded by a hundred clocks and watches that tick-tock like insistent woodpeckers. Jose sees his job as a responsibility. He finds watches and clocks fascinating and can talk endlessly on their complex machinery.

Roxy was started by his father P.L. Lukose in 1955. Devaraja Mudali Street, once the watch hub of Madras with its numerous wholesale outlets, was where many of the city’s watch mechanics learnt the ropes. Jose’s eyes gleam when he talks about the ‘main spring’ and ‘balance staff’, parts that keep a watch ticking.

“Our job is more than just changing the battery or cleaning the insides with kerosene. We have to treat every part with care. The miniscule insides require sophisticated machinery to work on,” he says. Jose has a lot of customers for his antique clocks that he sources from the coastal regions of Southern Tamil Nadu. “I work on them to ensure that they are in perfect working condition and export the clocks.”

Antique clocks with gorgeous wooden frames occupy pride of place at Zenith Watch Co. at Luz in Mylapore. The shop has been around since 1954 and Mahaboob Pasha, who runs the place, specialises in hand-wound clocks and watches. “There are very few people who can repair hand-wound time-pieces in the city,” says Mahaboob. He explains that battery-operated and winding clocks are poles apart. “We would need at least two days to repair a winding clock, but a battery-operated one can be readied in a few hours,” he adds.

Years of peering into the innards of watches and clocks through the eye glass has left an impact on these men. Many of them turn nostalgic when they talk about American, German and pendulum clocks with a certain vintage. Liaqath, who owns Omega Watch Co. in Mandaveli, prefers the period when winding and automatic wrist watches ruled, to the present times of battery-operated pieces.

“It’s exciting to work on those models. Battery watches, however, require just a change of battery to get them running,” says Liaqath. “I got a lot of work as long as winding watches were the only ones available in the market. They require servicing every three to five years and people took good care of them. But the trend changed after the mid-Nineties, when cheaper battery watches started coming in.”

Liaqath learned the craft as an assistant to a watch mechanic who operated out of the pavement on Devaraja Mudali Street. The 55-year-old spends most part of the day bent behind a glass booth with rusted metal boxes full of tools. Omega, which was started in 1985, has just enough space for two people to sit. But it is this tiny space that helped Liaqath educate his children.

A few blocks away, on the other side of the road, is Citizen Watch Co., run by the endearing 71-year-old Keswani. “I was two years old when I came to Madras with my family after Partition,” recalls Keswani, who hails from what is now Pakistan. With a band of white hair on his balding head and thick glasses over smiling eyes, the watch mechanic remembers learning the craft at Empire Watch Co. at China Bazaar. “We are a family of goldsmiths and I naturally took to repairing watches,” he says.

Keswani, like most watch mechanics, is a fan of winding watches. “Battery watches have nothing but mann (sand) inside them,” he chuckles. “People have become lazy these days. They don’t want to waste time to wind a watch or a clock.” His most prized possession is a huge Swiss Titoni wall clock with a white dial. “It’s worth a lot of money,” he adds. The clock is displayed on a stand at the entrance of his shop. Is it for sale? “I wouldn’t sell that,” smiles Keswani. “It’s for passers-by to see the time.”

Keswani owns an automatic watch with a silver strap. Liaqath and Mahaboob, however, don’t have watches of their own. “But I get to wear a lot of them,” says Liaqath, folding up the sleeves of his shirt to show two watches on his wrist. “These are test watches,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I’ve never liked wearing a watch.”

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 1:18:34 PM |

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