At a time when watches are no longer considered a necessity, courtesy our growing dependence on mobile phones and computers that work as a substitute, Javed Husain Khan’s quaint little shop in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti carries on doggedly. Anyone walking past the basement market’s narrow corridors might mistake it for a regular watch-repair outlet, but a closer look reveals that, besides genuine second-hand Swiss brands including Favre-Leuba, Titoni, Zenith, Wainer, Rado and Raymond Weil, the shop also sells HMT, Omega and Rolex, among others.
Many of those who look at vintage timepieces as a must-wear stylish accessory stop by here every few weeks to check if Khan has anything new to offer. And one of them is the Gurgaon-based designer Jivjeet Singh. He picks up a Titoni and tells Khan, “Aap next lot aane par batayenge na?” Sitting in his unpretentious shop, the 62-year-old nods, and later adds, “Sab uparwale ki meherbani hai — that from a little place on the pavement, I have this dukaan that attracts collectors and watch-lovers from across the world.”
Khan’s love affair with watches goes back a long way. And what made way for it was his truancy from school. “Studies never interested me,” he smiles remembering the time he would hide his school bag in the bushes around the Khan-i-Khana monument in the historical Nizamuddin neighbourhood, and bunk classes. “One day, when my two elder brothers caught me in the act, I was not just thrashed but abba ne mujhe ulta taang diya,” he adds with a laugh. This incident soon made Khan’s father, a Wakf Board employee, realise that his youngest-born was not cut out for studies, and so, he was allowed to drop out after class VIII.
Watch & learn
But, wonders Khan, could it be that fate had other plans? For, it was around this time that a relative from Lucknow who was living with them would be up through the night, repairing watches. And the little boy would sit alongside watching, mesmerised by the craft and dexterity involved. Khan soon picked up the essentials of watch repair and a few days later, when he managed to independently mend a watch, his future vocation was decided.
The next day, with his father’s assent taken, Khan, who was still in his mid-teens, started working in a big watch shop called Motiram & Sons in Chandni Chowk.
“I still remember the look of pride on my father’s face when, at the end of the month, I handed over my first salary — Rs 300 was a princely sum those days — to him. What made his heart further swell with pride was the Rs 10 bonus that my boss gave me as his token of appreciation.”
And this is where, Khan says, the world of Swiss watches — that have such a haloed history — opened up for him. And despite not being formally educated about them, he was picking up their intricacies.
No helping hand
But soon, the state of Emergency was declared and “the import of Swiss watches came to a halt,” informs Khan. Since India was a major market for most of the brands from this Alpine region, “their production was impacted and considerably reduced.” The idea behind their ban in India, he figures, “was to give a boost to indigenous brands. But the value of Swiss watches escalated given the fact that they were now not readily available.”
While all these changes were opening up new challenges on the professional front, Khan’s personal life was to witness a happy upheaval. This was when he started work in a big showroom in Delhi’s Connaught Place, where a young lady, Kaushal Sharma, also worked as a salesgirl. Hailing from the same neighbourhood, they started travelling together and within no time, Cupid struck.
But neither family, given their religious backgrounds, had any inkling about their development. Fully aware that approval for marriage would not be forthcoming, the couple — after a registered marriage and nikaah — eloped to Kashmir, where Khan managed to find work at a local watch shop. “Since Kashmiris are fond of watches, my expertise came in handy. So, we were not short of money,” he adds.
When all became quiet on the home front, the young couple returned home. And in the years that followed, led a happy life with two sons till Kaushal succumbed to cancer about two years ago. Their children, Junaid and Saif, are not following in their father’s footsteps, although the older one, who works in TV serials, helps him out.
At the turn of the millennium, the increased use of mobile phones led to a significant dip in the use and sale of watches. “Our business was badly hit, but now, things are looking up,” says Khan. Showing a pair of gold Swiss wrist-watches dating to the beginning of the last century that a lady from Mumbai has given him for repair, he says, “It makes me so happy, just working on stuff like these,” he says.
Fakes have no place, neither in his shop nor his life. “With so much experience with watches behind me, I can immediately identify pieces that are not genuine,” states the man who once dreamed of visiting the places in Switzerland where the timepieces are made. “I am too old for that now,” he signs off, a charming smile well in place.