Children search for things everywhere, just like monkeys and dogs do. They are on an eternal hunt for some treasure hidden somewhere by someone. Peeping into the old cupboards where parents hide their secrets, looking under the cots, searching for flowers, fruits and roots in the wayside thickets keep them engaged with the mysteries of mother earth. As they grow up, they lose interest in those mysteries and they start believe in the apparent and palpable. That’s how they become law abiding citizens in a controlled society. Trees, birds, animals, rivers, winds, rains and sea waves stop talking to them. The silent but curious conversations with the animate and inanimate slowly fade away leaving them to become passive consumers of newspapers and television channels. Each time, they remember their childhood they tend to think of those good old days of incessant searching. Then they feel the ultimate fear of discovering something for themselves; they may even chance upon their own souls. So they come back to the mundane realities as fast as they could and stay calm or they pretend to be so. Our story of HMT watches start from one such search undertaken by myself when I was a child of eight or nine, along with other kids of same age.
I do not remember who had told us that secret; it was simple but exciting. If you collected the cigarette packets of Scissors brand and searched for the letters ‘H M T’ at the pasted edges of the unfolded packet and sent them to the company you would get an HMT watch. In those days kids of my age never had a chance to wear a real watch. We satisfied our desire to have a wrist watch by making one out of the dexterously folded coconut tree leaves. We could make many things out of these fronds; square-balls, snakes, whistles and wrist watches. That was quite an organic origami. Plastic watches came with frozen needles stuck up in shapeless dials. Balloon men brought them to the festival grounds and parents living under the pressure of controlled economy hesitated to buy even those plastic watches. Real watches came to kids when they passed the school final examinations with considerable marks or grades that assured them admission in decent pre-degree colleges. Someone wearing a watch after the results were announced heralded his/her success to the world with that lone shiny ticking symbol at his wrist.
Finding the packets of Scissors brand cigarette was not a difficult thing as my village had enough smokers who could afford Scissors cigarette. We used cigarette packets to create various things. If you cut the packets into small pieces and folded them together you could create a long chain. You could make lamp shades out of thrown away cigarette packets. You could even create your own ‘video game’ with some interesting additions to a packet. However, finding the letters H M T in these packet was a different ball game altogether. Disappointment came with the realization that not any single packet carried all three letters. Some had ‘H’, some had ‘M’ and some people claimed that they got ‘T’ also. None got three packets with all those three magical letters. If you got two, the third one was perpetually missing. Those who claimed that they got the missing letter, were not ready to exchange it for the one extra we had. After almost a year long desperate search for those three letters, we all gave up the idea. Soon we came to know that it was all a hoax. The cigarette company did not offer any watch to anyone even though they painstakingly collected all three letters and sent to the company.
In childhood you are susceptible to all such weird ideas. You may not be interested to finish your homework but without any complaint you would write some mantra for hundred times, or copy a pamphlet that praised some gods, ten times in order to gain good marks in the examination or to receive some sort of blessings from the invisible gods. It was the time that a child imagined traveling to school on a pony or riding a cycle fitted with some kind of an engine. It was a time when each child envied a man or woman wearing a wrist watch. I got my first wrist watch when I passed my school final examinations and needless to say, it was an HMT watch. I flaunted my watch which had a golden yellow dial and a steel chain, with lot of pride. It was not a cell-powered one or a quartz watch. I had to wind it every morning and it was a fulfilling exercise. I wore it for a long time till it became a part of my body and felt like attaching no special qualities to it. When Gulf money brought more and more fashionable watches of international brands like Citizen, Seiko, Rado and so on, HMT watches went out of fashion. Even claiming to have an HMT watch became a thing of shame at that time. In due course of time, my first HMT watch went into the drawer of my writing table and stayed there ‘dead’ for a long time.
(Shibu Natesan and Anil Janardanan in Trivandrum, mid 1980s)
Winding watches or mechanical wrist watches had always attracted Shibu Natesan. He got his first watch when he went to Trivandrum Fine Arts College in mid 1980s. It was not a gift or something like that. As an artist, the child in him had not grown up so he was always searching for something that excited his imagination. In one of those search trips undertaken by him, he came across an old wrist watch in someone’s hand. That person was ready to part with it for a small amount. It had a faded golden sheen to it. Shibu managed some money and got the watch for himself. When he wore it, the watch looked quite trendy and I coveted one for myself too because I thought my HMT watch was not so ‘cool’ in front of his trendy old watch. The Trivandrum Fine Arts College aura was so powerful that whatever the students in that college wore looked naturally attractive. I still remember the jeans and cotton trousers that Shibu had bought from different markets. He would go to any length to get something that he had fancied. And I think that character trait has become only stronger by the passage of time. A few years back he became an avid collector of HMT watches that ran on winding. He does not fancy the cell-powered watches produced by the HMT Company. The story of Shibu’s HMT craze is fascinating.
I should start with a small anecdote. It happened to be just a couple of days before we started our journey to Thiruvannamalai. Shibu has this tendency of getting into any watch shop, however small or big it is, and asking for the ‘mechanical HMT watches’. Often the shop owners give him an emphatic NO. Due to the flooding of ‘time’ market with affordable and very expensive wrist watches from national and international brands, most of the shop owners as well as customers naturally believe that HMT watches no longer exist. Even if they exist, shop owners say, they are ‘left over’ old pieces. They do not mind selling them in the ‘old’ price. The fact is that they just want to get rid of their remaining stock of the HMT watches. Interestingly, the shop owners have even forgotten that once upon a time all the watches were mechanical. They blindly believe that HMT has stopped producing watches. Some even think that the company has already been locked out as it is a public sector company.
(Shibu Natesan in one of his sketching trips)
We were on the way to book our bus ticket to Thiruvannamalai. It was drizzling and we were rushing to the nearest shop where they booked the tickets for buses and trains. Soon a small watch shop came in our view. Shibu did not hesitate a moment to get into that shop and demand a mechanical HMT watch. They looked at Shibu and then to me as if they were seeing two aliens suddenly materialized before them. The shop owner gave out a cynical laughter when he heard Shibu’s question. Without hesitating for a second, the shop owner said that HMT no longer produced wrist watches. Shibu raised his left hand at him and showed a mechanical HMT watch that he had bought a few days before from Thumkur in Karnataka, the third factory established by the Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) company for producing watches exclusively. The shop owner was not pleased. He stuck to his argument saying that he had been running the shop for the last twenty years and if Shibu could prove that the watch at his wrist was ‘original’ he would shut the shop forever. Shibu laughed at his arrogance and gave his watch to the shop assistant. He used a magnifying glass to check the seal and make and sheepishly told the shop owner that it ‘looked’ original. The man was not ready to listen. He was saying that if Shibu could prove it, he would stop his business. Shibu told him calmly that he was not a representative from the HMT Company and his intention was just to tell him that the mechanical HMT watches were still available in the market.
While walking back, Shibu was repeatedly asking me whether we should go back and show him the company receipt that he had obtained while buying the watch from the original showroom of HMT in Thumkur. I was not in a mood to make someone go pale with shame and embarrassment. So I advised against that. Nor was Shibu in any mood to stop that poor man’s business. As we walked on, enjoying the droplets of rain falling on our faces, he told me about how he was initiated to the world of the mechanical HMT watches. It was almost a decade back. Shibu was visiting Thiruvannamalai with his British wife, Kate Bowes, and he happened to see a watch shop that sold an interesting array of watches. While browsing through the watches, Shibu found a mechanical HMT wrist watch. The make was simple but it was beautiful, especially when seen against all those glittering sleek watches and heavily decorated large dial watches. The price was phenomenally low and Shibu was hooked not only by the beauty of it but also by the price. When he bought that watch he did not know that he was going to collect more than twenty mechanical HMT wrist watches, which were released under different sub-names.
We do not know whether our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru considered the maximum ‘time is money’ too seriously or not. However, we know for sure that Nehru wanted to take India to the next level of modernity by establishing several industries. Hindustan Machine Tools was one such industry that was meant to produce tractors, machine parts and other mechanical tools. In 1961, in collaboration with the Japanese watch producer, Citizen Co., HMT started producing wrist watches and Nehru released the first batch of the mechanical wrist watches in the same year. The company went into expansion mode till mid 1980s and became one of the biggest watch producers in the country. But due to various reasons including the lack of enthusiasm to compete with the other watch makers, HMT watches became less cool. But during the first three decades of its inception, HMT had produced a lot of interesting hand wound wrist watches under different brand names. Janata is one of the most famous brands of HMT watches and I wear one such watch gifted by Shibu last year. Shibu travels any length to find out whether any small watch shop still keeps the hand wound HMT watches. Some days he rides his green Enfield Bullet more than hundred kilometers combing each and every street in several southern districts for HMT watches. Sometimes his search has taken him across the state borders within one day. After collecting almost all the hand wound brands of HMT watches, now he is on a hunt for a brand called ‘Jawhar’.
Shibu’s interest in HMT watches does not end up with collecting several watches from the same company. He has more or less studied the whole history of the HMT Company and also has made connections with the major show rooms in India. He is also familiar with the facebook groups that promote old and cool watches. To my surprise he told me that most of the HMT watch collectors were young IT men and they were very active in the social networking groups for promoting and collecting HMT watches. His incessant combing operations have brought him many friends who are equally interested in watches not only as sellers but also as mechanics and collectors. Interestingly, Shibu has found out that the HMT Company has outlets even in the major post offices in India from where even you could send HMT watches as gifts to people!
(A view of Thiruvannamalai town, with the Arunachala temple in the middle. It is where we hunted for more HMT watches)
In Thiruvannamalai, our walking expeditions are punctuated by the visits to every watch shop. Shibu asks the same question in every shop; Do you have mechanical HMT wrist watches? Some of them show us the cell-powered HMT watches, which are obviously designed to give a competition to other watch makers. But we are not looking for those new and trendy watches. Shibu wants this particular ‘Jawahar’ watch and none has it. One of them tells him to come back after a couple of days and without fail we reach that small shop on the stipulated day only to find the man who has promised the watch missing indefinitely. Someone gives us a wrong address to find out an exclusive watch shop and we end up walking at least two kilometers without find it and finally we come back to the same spot from we set off for that shop only to find out that the shop stands right there a few paces away to our right. But that exclusive shop also fails to satisfy Shibu’s hunger for a particular HMT watch. He promises me that he would continue his search till he finds out the Jawahar brand and feels his mechanical wrist watch collection complete.