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The most prominent testament to the watchmaker’s glory was the HMT Colony, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Not so long ago, this was a picture of proletarian éclat, of an entire settlement working like clockwork to drive a growing economy. Here, you might say that the HMT legacy rests in a swamp of its own. One that is hundreds of acres wide. All of it prime real estate, surrounded by soaring residential tower blocks.
The HMT Colony was set up around four sprawling manufacturing plants, all of which are now locked down, and unworthy of any manner of salvage operations. Only one HMT machine tools unit remains active, with about 500 paid employees.
Our photographer and I jumped over the compound walls of one of these factories. Clearly, not many people had ventured this far recently. The guards had long deserted their posts and the premises had turned into something of a community kennel for mongrels and strays of the neighborhood. I risked tip-toeing over the creaky walkways to gain a sense of an HMT floor manager‘s rounds.
Admittedly, I came back with little more to report than a picture of rotting columns, decaying pillars, flecks of plaster and heaps of rusted metal layered by the dust of years of neglect. The impressions you’re left to conjure are of a bustling production environment in the black and white era, with hordes of togged-up workers cranking out sparkling pieces of engineering.
At the heart of the crumbling colony, which includes a hospital, a shopping complex and a theatre – all structures in varying degrees of disrepair, lay the empty HMT School’s ground. The assemblies were dispersed a few terms ago; only a section of the building is functional, where free classes are held for children from the nearby villages of Kammagondahalli, Chikbanavara and Dasarahalli. It’s a telling picture, of the bells ringing over the HMT empire.
Krishna Reddy, a volunteer at the school and former HMT employee, said the classes – held only from Grade VI to VIII, are funded by private donors. “The state gave up on HMT, and all of us, a long time ago,” said Krishna. “It’s only a matter of time. We’re waiting to see what happens next,” he said. The textbooks and stationery are all donated. Krishna beckoned a few students and said, pointing at their clothes, which were patently re-stitched,“See, old HMT uniforms.”
For the most part, the HMT Colony is a set for B-grade haunted-mansion movies. At night, the lights from the apartments around raise a dim glow over the HMT grounds, like hangdog floodlights looming over an abandoned arena marked for demolition.
At Bangalore‘s roadside watch-servicing stalls, second-hand HMTs are still immensely popular, alongside retro Seikos and Citizens. It is a defining picture – an antique HMT cradled in the crinkly hands of a veteran repairman like Riyaz Pasha, in an alleyway of Ulsoor Market. If HMT made an art form of watchmaking, it lives on in the hands of native experts like Riyaz.
At stores like Riyaz’s, used HMTs sell for between INR500 (About $8) and INR1,500 ($22). While unopened HMT packages are on offer online for as little as INR599 ($9) up to INR 28,500 ($420) for the 17 Jewels HMT Jhalak. The earliest HMT models featuring Citizen movements are the most valued. For most enthusiasts, HMT watches are keepsakes invested greatly with sentimental value, if not direct monetary worth.
Back at the colony, come evening, the crowds gather on benches around a community field, watching the fleet-footed contests of barefoot scamps in replica jerseys of international teams. The sentiments are mixed among the elderly gents. Many of them sport HMTs of choice. But they’re certain that the watches are unlikely to be prized by their children. The name HMT is of meager import in its own backyard. And that, unfortunately, is how the HMT legacy will rest.