What a handful of youngsters considered stable jobs led to decades long careers of rather monotonous, highly-focused work. It inadvertently impacted the lives of millions of Indians too. The idea of a singular watch brand for millions of Indians for decades intrigued us, and we wanted to bring to light the men and women that were behind the scenes. Their personalities, and their stories are as intriguing as the watches they helped produce. We asked Meera Ganapathi at The Soup Magazine to bring this story to life for us, and so she did. Portraits by Sameer Raichur.
“My father gave me an HMT Chetan in 1982, it never stopped working”
“My father gave me an HMT Chetan in 1982, a gift for graduating. I still use the watch. You see, it never stopped working,” says Mr. Chandra Shekar who went on to work at the HMT factory right until it shut down.
Stories like these aren’t uncommon. Time has been woven into the country’s consciousness since independence with a famous speech that indelibly marked Indians as midnight’s children. It’s quite poetic that the man behind that speech Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was also the one who established the country’s earliest means of keeping time with HMT.
In 1961 when HMT started operations, it was an attempt at creating a self-sustained economy that met its own needs. Today watches from that era are looked at with the fondness that often accompanies nostalgia. Twitter threads run soft with sentiment when an old HMT ad pops up. Stories of watches gifted at weddings, passed on from fathers to sons, presented at first jobs, last days of service, graduations and bought with first salaries cram the Internet. Indians loved the watches because they signified a momentous occasion in our lives.
“HMT was like a good-natured family friend”
HMT was also a brand that was warm and personal, like a good-natured family friend. One customer recalls an incident where he bought the HMT Sanjay and was annoyed to discover that ‘4’ was represented as ‘IIII’ instead of the correct Roman numerals ‘IV.’ He remembers writing to the company about this slight upon which he received an immediate response from a manager, “watches are always given the numerals IIII so as not be confused with VI and for symmetrical visual balance.” The customer was impressed by the pains the company took to respond to him personally. Others speak of times when HMT watches were in such great demand that pre-orders were made before the release of a new model. Often people would request for exceptions, “can I get one sooner, it is for my ailing father/my sister’s wedding/my son’s graduation.” Remarkably, sympathetic managers would take this into account and make those exceptions.
“We were trained by Kikuchi San, she was almost strict but taught us well.”
While nostalgia is the overriding sentiment when it comes to Indian made watches from the ‘70s and ‘80s, they also stand for solidity and well-honed craft. When an HMT owner tells you his watch still functions today, it is a testimony to the quality the company stood for.
But Indians did not know how to engineer or craft watches in 1961, so how did HMT create the quality it was famed for? Employees at the Tumkur and Bangalore branches recall learning from Japanese engineers from Citizen watches who were brought down to India to impart know-how.
“We were trained by Kikuchi San for six months,” says Mrs. AV Vijayalakshmi a 74-year-old who first joined the company in 1963. “She was very to-the-point, almost strict, but she taught us well.” Mrs. Vijayalakshmi is one of the earlier female employees who worked on assembly at the hairspring section in the Bangalore factory. HMT was one of the largest employers of women at a time when there were hardly any visible at the workplace.
“Women ruled my department,” says another employee from the time Mrs. Leela Narasimhan. “There was perhaps one male supervisor who oversaw the section. But we were the queens.” Mrs. Narasimhan was also the first woman in her family to work. She credits the joint family system for this just as much as she credits the work atmosphere at HMT. She could work without worrying about the upbringing of her children as there was always someone to divide responsibilities with. After she took up the job, she says other women in the family also found the confidence to work.
“Twice a year, the workers undergo eye-tests.”
Like many other women in her time, she worked at sub-assembly in the hairspring department which she describes as ‘the heart of the watch.’ Even though she claims work was a ‘picnic’ the women in this department dedicated eight hours a day to their detailed tasks.
The work was indeed rigorous and twice a year, eye-specialists would check on the women to determine their health and suitability for this specialised job. The ladies, however, took great pride in being diligent. Every morning before entering the department they’d set aside the jasmine in their hair and change into freshly laundered work uniforms and scarves to do their bit for the day.
Mrs. Vijayalakshmi describes her punishing schedule with the air of a student who occupies the first bench in every class, “I never took a tea or coffee break even though others would. I would just want to work and work and work. Even if someone gave me extra work I’d be happy to do that as well,” she remembers, “I was very sincere.”
“Watches were named like well loved children. Nutan, Sujata, Rajat, and Sona.”
Every worker was keenly attuned to the minutiae of watchmaking. HMT went on to make about 115 million watches, but the timepieces were checked and re-checked to make sure they were worth the hard earned money spent on acquiring them. Perhaps it is for this reason that the watches are often referred to as ‘the working man’s timekeeper.’ These long lasting watches were money well spent, and their popularity was unmatched.
Named like well-loved children Nutan, Sujata, Rajat, and Sona were best-selling pieces that came to define elegance and durability. Mr. Mallikarjuniah is a soft-spoken but distinguished looking man, dressed in a dark safari suit for the occasion. He remembers a time when the watches created a frenzy in the country. “Many people would want the watches as dowry,” he says in hushed tones. In the glory days of the company, he’d often be accosted for watches by friends and relatives as employees got a discount back then.
In fact, most HMT collectors scramble to own these prized mechanical watches. Mrs. Murthy, who worked in HMT right from the early ‘60s is one such aficionado. Although she checks time on her cell phone now, the practical Mrs. Nagambike Murthy was particularly fond of the watch Nutan which she describes as a ‘modern’ watch in that day. Mechanical watches were well loved perhaps due to the routine of winding up that bound the wearer to his/her piece in many ways.
“I felt like a little girl going to school; I’d forget all my troubles at home.”
HMT eventually shut down due to internal red tape and failure to keep up with changing market demands, but Bangaloreans, in particular, are permanently woven into the history of this brand. Old employees (the Bangalore division had a formidable number of workers) and the enthusiastic HMT collectors club have cemented Bangalore’s timeless connection with the company.
Even today, employees like Mrs. Murthy recall the familial atmosphere at the Bangalore factory with a sadness they have now come to accept. As the sole breadwinner in a family of five, Mrs. Murthy was left to fend for her family after her husband unexpectedly passed away. But work saw her through these tough times. “While going to work, I felt like a little girl going to school; I’d forget all my troubles at home.”
Long after the company closed doors, the timepieces continue to be wound, worn and preserved. Today, the watches have come to tell time that has long passed but will always be remembered with affection.