CHENNAI, March 31: Seated on a rickety wooden stool, near a pile of rubble, looking through an eyepiece, Razia Begum carefully resets the time of a gold-plated wrist watch using a pointed tool called a hairspring collet lever, from one of the many boxes stacked in her pale-white wooden cabinet.
Wanting to carry on her father’s legacy, Razia took over his watch-repairing business after completing her tenth grade at the Murtuzaviya Oriental Higher Secondary School, an Islamic school [madrasa] in Chennai.
“I have been in this business for fifteen years now. This is my father’s nishani [mark of remembrance]. He started this shop more than twenty five years ago. I wanted to help him so that his business does not close after he dies,” says Razia.
The youngest among three sisters, Razia says that she is the only one who finally entered the family business after being taught the art by her father. Her eldest sister, Shabhana Begum, is a housewife and her other sister, Aisha Begum, folds boxes for medicines in a company near their house.
Married for five years now, 30-year-old Razia recollects how her mother-in-law was completely against her decision to work.
“She [mother-in-law] wanted me to stay at home and cook and become a housewife. So I left her house with my husband. He [her husband] has been very supportive and he helps me a lot,” she says.
But becoming a watch smith was never her dream. “I dreamt of being a lawyer after seeing TV. But now it is not possible. My father changed the plan for my life,” says Razia.
Earlier known as Besant Time Centre, Razia says that her father renamed the shop after her, once she got involved in the business, calling it Royal Time Centre (Razia meaning royal).
Until a few years ago, this shop was among eleven other small businesses that worked from what is now called the Besant Nagar bus depot. Razia claims that after the government took over that area for making it a bus depot, all the businesses were pushed to the streets and only a small number of them continue in the same locality.
Recalling minute details, Razia says, “My stall was number 6. Abba [her father] had bought the space for seventy five thousand rupees back then. We had a small roof over our shop and the sales were good. But when the government came to take over the place for their use, they just gave us a six-month notice. They didn’t give us any compensation.”
She adds that this space was initially given by the government to the poor to help them set up small-scale businesses. But the poor, instead, sold their space for prices ranging from Rs. 75,000 to Rs. 5 lakhs to businesses like hers and returned to their old tactics of begging and living on the footpath.
Today, Royal Time Centre has become a roadside watch repair shop diagonally opposite Kasthuri Bakery, behind the bus depot. Fluorescent-coloured plastic wrist watches, large circular vintage wall clocks and blue cloth bags hang from various hooks inside the wooden cabinet which rests on a green unstable set of drawers. Stone-studded watches, oval and circular dials, plastic curios and artificial plants clutter the space. Various Urdu sayings are stuck on the poorly-cleaned cabinet glass.
As Razia and her husband, Mohummad Moinullah Khan, set up their array of watch straps, Chinese imported watches, batteries and clocks on suitcases, they say that the only people who have helped them are the owners of Kasthuri Bakery. By letting them keep their products and tools in their bakery during the night, they have saved them a lot of trouble, says Razia.
Dressed in a black burqa and hijab, Razia is seen sitting behind her tiny cabinet two hours before noon every day except on Sundays. With nothing but a street lamp and a charged emergency light near the stone rubble, she works till nine in the night.
“I can repair a watch even in my sleep!” she claims, adding that she has always felt safe in Besant Nagar.
The lack of a watch smith in this locality has ensured that Razia continues to earn some money through her little shop. She proudly says that a woman watch smith is not a common sight.
Brushing aside the thought of ever doing a bad job, Razia says that quality is very important to her. She confidently says that the scrap pieces she buys from Parrys – a well-known area in Chennai – are of excellent quality.
Scrambling through cylindrical tins filled with batteries, pins, sharp tools, screws and scrap parts to repair a yellow table clock, Razia says, “I can repair any kind of clock. I make around Rs.400 to Rs.500 a day. I do not have any fixed prices. I change it depending on the repair the watch [or clock] needs. From each repair, I make at least 30 rupees profit but I don’t cheat the customer. If they bargain, I usually settle for their price.”
But it is not money that she wants. She repeatedly emphasises that a loyal customer is always better than a huge profit.
“The customer is important, not the money. In big showrooms, they will charge 400 rupees for each repair and ask you to come after two days. I don’t want to charge high prices,” she says.
Years of repairing has earned her some regular customers. Coming from middle and upper class families, her customers include police officers, judges, employees from the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) quarters, lawyers and many others, she claims.
From auto drivers to shop owners, everyone knows of Razia’s shop. She has become a familiar face to residents of Besant Nagar who happily wave out to her when they walk past her shop. Recognising her customers by name, Razia says she remembers most of them.
Yet, the business has had some major setbacks. “Before our shop was on the road, the people had more faith in our work because of the roof covering and all. People were willing to pay more. We even had receipt books. But now, we just note our sales in a book,” she says.
Moinullah owns a fan repair shop which adds a few hundred rupees to the family income. A rented apartment in the same building as their house in Triplicane has been useful for taking care of a family of eight including her mother – Rehana Begum, Shabhana’s family, Aisha and her son, says Razia. But they are left with almost no savings after purchasing her mother’s medicines and her work tools, she says.
The rains are a nightmare for Razia. She laments that no repair work can be done since water will enter the watch. Most of her tools get spoilt because there is no roof covering her shop, she adds.
Despite these problems, Razia says that she would want her nephew and niece to take up the business and she would train them personally. She hopes that one day; they will make Royal Time Centre a huge company.
She rejects the idea of partnering with any big showroom and says, “I never worked anywhere else only because I wanted to continue my father’s business. We have never taken help from anyone and we never will.”
When Razia’s shop was pushed out of the building, she could no longer hang the antique, vintage clocks, which were more than forty years old, since she didn’t have a wall.
She says that now she has got used to her life and she doesn’t have any complaints. All she wants are a few loyal customers apart from buyers for those beautiful vintage clocks.
“We gave my father’s vintage clock collection to his friend for free. He has kept it in his shop and has promised to give us the money if it sells. We don’t know if anyone will buy it. But if anyone wants a vintage clock to keep in their house, please bring them to me!” says Razia.