In Bangalore, nimble hands of time stilled

For decades, R.C. Sharma has regulated time in one-second increments. Now, as he offers tea to visitors, surrounded by boxes of precision machinery and the sign that graced his watch-repair shop for so long, he’s wistful as he sees time, and an era, wind down.

“I’m already 74,” he said, “and there’s not much time left.”

The gentlemanly watch man inhabits the ever-shrinking corner of India, which still looks to the era of the British Empire, where traditional craftsmanship trumps profit.

“Sharma has Old World charm and courtesy,” said H.N. Ramakrishna, a longtime customer and lifelong Bangalore resident. “India has a rich history, but not many care to remember it. Sadly, we are losing our handcrafted skills, replaced by mass-produced digital and plastic gadgets.”

Sharma’s store closed a few months ago and the building, the 1930s-era Plaza Movie Theater, was torn down to make way for a Metro station.

“Most of my customers are dead and gone,” he said. “There are very few left.”

His sight started deteriorating a year ago, and he had cataract surgery after the building was razed. He plans to open a shop for engraving, work that is easier to do with poor eyesight.

Sharma acquired his lifelong passion from his father, who set up the Phoenix Watch Works in 1926, traveling to Germany, Switzerland and England to acquire specialist lathes and milling machines, the most sophisticated India had then seen. In 1935, he moved the shop to the theater building.

In 1959, a few years after his father’s death, Sharma took over. He was 24.

Being his own boss suited Sharma’s temperament. There was no pressure to lower his standards; he took the clients he wanted, charged very little, did what he loved and became friends with most of his customers.

“I select the jobs I want, accept what I can manage and not beyond,” he said, sporting a mustache, salt-and-pepper eyebrows and thinning hair.

He speaks with proper English diction and proudly touts his membership in the British Horological Institute. On his business card, he retained the street’s original British name, South Parade, five decades after it was renamed Mahatma Gandhi Road.

“He’s very British,” said Peter Grosshans, a German software designer who befriended Sharma during a five-year assignment in Bangalore. “He never calls himself a watchmaker. He’s a horologist, more in the Swiss tradition of handcrafting a watch.”

The watch shop was the cinema’s first tenant, in retail space beside the entrance. The owners kept the rent low — only $25 a month at the end — allowing Sharma to charge almost nothing for most work, and nothing but the parts for impoverished customers.

“The sense of honor, not overcharging people, that’s lost these days,” Sharma said. “Everyone’s trying to make a fast buck.”

The tiny shop, where he worked even on Sundays, was his life, said family members and former customers. He never advertised, confident that word of mouth and long-standing relationships would bring in the business.

“One weakness he had: he wasn’t ambitious, very much an individual player cocooned in his work,” said his son Ratan Sharma, 41. “Probably 10,000 people walked by his shop, but he never wanted to expand.”

From his tiny base, he had a front-row seat as watch styles and technologies changed. During the early stages of World War II, he recalled, his father mostly worked on the Swiss-made watches owned by British officers, worth the equivalent of a month’s salary (or, in a more apt comparison, 50 beers).

Later, the American military showed up: big swaggering fellows, many of whom refused to stand when the British national anthem played at matinees.

“The American troops had a jolly good time. They had an eye for quality, fond of a good Swiss watch as well,” Sharma said.

After the war, new high-end watches came into India as Switzerland returned to its trademark industry, until India’s independence and new socialist policies discouraged imports and encouraged self-reliance, leading to India’s HMT and Titan watch companies.

These were pretty pedestrian, he said, and didn’t hold a candle to their (distant) Swiss cousins. “That led to rampant smuggling,” he said. “Whenever the government steps in, there’s corruption and disaster.”

Electric watches started appearing in the late 1950s, accurate to plus or minus two minutes a year if well maintained, he said. The milestone Bulova Accutron was introduced in the early 1960s.

“It had a frequency of 45 cycles per second and an accuracy of plus or minus two seconds a year,” he said, sounding like the mechanical engineer he trained to be.

Then in the 1970s came the cheap, extremely accurate quartz watches, undermining Swiss dominance, followed by LED and LCD models with their digital displays.

“The Americans launched all this, killing the industry,” he said. “It takes the soul, the beauty, out of it.”

Sharma replaced batteries in the cheap quartz watches he detested. “If you gave him two tasks, to change a battery or fix a mechanical spring, he’d always choose the spring,” said Grosshans, who apprenticed under Sharma.

The pace quickened after 1990. Nouveau riche IT executives flooded into Bangalore, laden with “gold mine salaries but no taste,” while less well-off customers appeared with fake Rolexes. But he maintained his cordiality and high standards.

“With my shop closing, there’s no one left doing what I did,” he said. He paused for a minute, then added: “Now won’t you have another biscuit?”