I have never owned an HMT watch. Why? As I didn’t exist in my father’s and mother’s generation. But I’m really fascinated with them, this I tell honestly. When I would look at my father’s old black and white photo, him holding a weather-beaten guitar, I would notice the thing in his left hand – the HMT. And the same goes with my mother’s photo. She posing in her room when she was young, probably my age. And that watch would be there on her wrist, half covered with the sleeve of her light blue sweater. I was always curious and wanted to see it in real life.
When I was a toddler, my uncle would come home after work and he would greet me with open arms jovially smiling and saying, “Hey Willie!” I would run to him, leaving my toys behind and he would caress me tightly. I would play in my bed with his golden HMT watch that gleamed as the naked light bulb shone on it.
He would play with me in the compound during the weekends. That was the time when we lived in our old house, now no longer existing. And I would watch the golden minute marker move arould the silver dial as the light of the sun kissed it.
So I said to myself one day: As I’m a grown up now, I must own an HMT watch. So I set out to Police Bazaar to search for one. I had just received my salary, and I was happy. But sadly, in every shop I went, I couldn’t find one. Each shop owner said, “Arrey bhai, the company had shut down many years ago.” Some said it in Hindi, some in English. I thought of going home disenchanted and sad. But I then made up my mind there in the chaotic footpath of Police Bazaar, and I at that moment, thought of another option – a Sonata watch. In many ways similar to HMT – Indian, affordable and long-lasting.
As I began looking at the watches through the glass at TK Pantee Watch Dealer in Khyndailad (the last small shop I went to), there was one watch that struck me. It was in the right corner. The bespectacled English speaking owner took it out – a gold-plated watch named Shreyas. It was, to my surprise, an HMT! I took the watch in my hand and adored it for some time. Then, after he put the battery inside and it worked, I gave him the money. I went home happy as I found the only HMT watch in the whole of Police Bazaar.
Established in 1960 in Bangalore, HMT or Hindustan Machine Tools had a success run of three decades. It was popular till the late eighties. It collaborated with Japan’s Citizen Watches in 1961, and this boosted its sale, with it having monopoly in the market. Once liberalisation opened up India’s market, the watch company sadly could not compete with new brands like Titan.
HMT Watches successfully negotiated the transition from the mechanised watch to the automatic watch in the mid-1970s. It was the gradual global move to quartz watches in the mid-1980s that the company could not keep up with, and by 1991 it had surrendered its coveted market leadership to Titan Watches. By the time HMT got its act together and got into the quartz manufacturing segment, Titan had already consolidated a major market share.
It is interesting that HMT has a history in Shillong. During the 1980s, an HMT factory was set up in Lumjingshai (near the Meter Factory) where parts of HMT watches were assembled, and then sent to Banglaore – the head factory – where there would be inspection on the quality, and after the check it would be then sent to shops in different parts of the country. Some watches assembled in Shillong were so good in terms of quality that they were exported to Hong Kong.
Now the watch company, which had shut down during the nineties, remains in the hearts of many people, especially the old. The HMT Shreyas watch I found is now an antique. It is a rarity! And it could be sold for three times its price to any avid collector. I’ve read of them in the internet. Some would pay a lot of money just to own an HMT. There are many Facebook pages of such enthusiasts where they regularly post many photos of HMTs of their own.
A watch, most importantly, tells us the time. Now in these modern times, it has become an accessory. It is regarded as something that expresses our fashion sense or our sense of good taste. The HMT Shreyas watch I now own is one that I would sport only on the big occasions – in weddings and formal parties – as it would match the suit. I am a proud owner of a watch that is now on the verge of extinction like the Ambassador car and the blue and yellow wooden Tata buses that we do not often see on the streets of Shillong.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Supplement of The Shillong Times newspaper May 17, 2015 (link: http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2015/05/17/worthy-watch/#LMQISTJgBRiPBaxq.99)