The watch surgeon of Patan

10 min read
03 Jun 2017
10 min read
1995 words
For those in the know, Dirghamuni Shakya is the only watchmaker to turn to when their timepiece breaks down

A watch is made up of more than a hundred tiny, individual pieces, all of which need to be in perfect sync for the machine to tell time accurately. These pieces must be handled with meticulousness, as the slightest mistake—be it forgetting the position of a particular gear or applying too much force while overhauling the watch—could render the watch useless.

Obviously, clock restoring is not for everyone. For a watch repairer, being patient helps, but you also need to know when to stop fiddling with a watch, or you might end up spending too much time on a lost cause. And even after you've got the basic skills mastered, you've just covered the fundamentals. There's still more that you need: deft hands, eagle eyes, and most importantly, experience with a wide range of watches. And once you've acquired those, you might come close to being as good as Dirghamuni Shakya, a clock restorer in Patan who has been repairing timepieces for over 60 years now.

Dirghamuni's workplace is one of the smaller shops among the many shops near the Bhimsen Mandir in Patan Durbar Square. Every morning, between eight and 8:30, Dirghamuni unbolts the doors to his store (which he's rented for 48 years now), switches on the tubelights and changes into his work clothes—all he needs to do is remove his clean, ironed, formal pants to reveal the trousers that he's worn inside. He then turns on the radio, which is almost always tuned to Headlines & Music FM 97.2, and positions himself cross-legged at his workstation—a low bed with a white bedspread. More than half of this bed is occupied by Dirghamuni's extensive paraphernalia—screwdrivers, tweezers, hammers, blades, scissors, cleaning brushes, watch batteries, screws, stickers, spare watch-bands, and other little tools and equipment that are needed to fix timepieces. At the far end of his workspace, boxes full of spare watch parts stacked on top of one another form a makeshift display stand for the watches that Dirghamuni has kept for sale. 

From the off-white-coloured walls of the shop hang clocks, some of which have pendulums, some which boast an alarm feature, and some that were handed to Dirghamuni for repair but were never reclaimed by their owners. A first-time visitor to Dirghamuni's shop may get overwhelmed by the sheer chaos in the room. But for Dirghamuni, it's the one place where literally everything makes perfect sense.          

It was Dirghamuni's father, Shakyamuni Shakya, who taught him to fix watches when Dirghamuni was 12. Shakyamuni was a land appraiser who worked for the government, and one day, after having valued some person's land, he found two watches in his pocket (they had apparently been placed there to please Shakyamuni so that he would value the land at a higher price than its actual value). However, the watches were not in working condition, so Shakyamuni tried to fix them, even though he did not know how to. He figured that since he'd gotten the watch for free, there would be nothing to lose even if he couldn't fix it or if he ended up exacerbating the problem. After much fiddling, says Dirghamuni, his father got the watches working again. His father, gladdened that he'd fixed an automatic watch, wanted to practise on more watches. And so he began asking people to hand over to him any broken watches in their possession; he'd fiddle with them, trying his best to repair them. 

Over time, Shakyamuni familiarised himself with the workings of watches and rapidly improved at the craft; and soon he opened his own watch-repair shop—that's where little Dirghamuni would go to learn the art of watch-repairing. "Watch-repairing really piqued my interest," says Dirghamuni, 72 today. "On days when my father would be out of the Valley on work, I would go to my father's workshop. Because I couldn't lift the door all the way, I would lift it up halfway, prop it up with a rod, make my way into the shop, get a stool, stand atop it and push the door open all the way up. I would then practice what my father had taught me."

Back then, most of the watches that ended up in his father's shop were automatic models. "During my father's time, there were very few watches available in Nepal. In fact, you couldn't buy watches here," he says. "Watches were worn mostly by Nepali soldiers who went to India as Gurkhas; they'd return home with Indian automatic watches." Automatic watches function in a manner that's completely different from their quartz- or battery-powered counterparts. Quartz watches make use of quartz crystals, which possess piezoelectric properties—which means that bending the crystal or applying pressure on it generates small electric currents. In reverse effect, when electricity is passed through a piece of quartz, it deforms. But when a particular amount of current is passed through a carefully shaped quartz crystal, it vibrates, or oscillates. This oscillation then drives the motor that controls the watch hands, advancing them one step per second. 

Self-winding automatic watches, however, are powered by the natural motions of the wearer's body, and their setup is much more complex. Inside the watch is a weight that is affixed to a pivot. The wearer's natural movements cause the weight to rotate on the pivot, and through a series of gears, this setup eventually causes the mainspring of the watch to wind. Besides these types of watches, "automatic mechanical watches" , that require the wearer to wind them manually at regular intervals, are also made. These watches, often handmade by watchmakers, rarely break down. But when they do, repairing them is tricky. "To fix automatic watches, a good cleanup of the watch, which takes at least an hour, gets the watch ticking again," says Dirghamuni. He sometimes finds himself strapping onto his wrists up to four watches at once to make sure that the watches he's worked on are functioning properly.

Watches were worn mostly by Nepali soldiers who went to India as Gurkhas; they'd return home with Indian automatic watches

However, when Dirghamuni feels like some task is beyond his capacity or when a watch is just too expensive, he chooses to not meddle with it at all. "The more expensive the watch, the harder it is to procure spare parts, and higher the cost of repair," he says.

But these days, says Dirghamuni, very few automatic watches land at his workshop, and thus, he hardly needs to completely overhaul watches. In recent years, quartz and digital watches have completely taken over the market because they're more accurate, significantly cheaper and simpler to fix than their automatic peers. And many people don't even feel the need to wear watches because their smartphones have built-in clocks. "Most of the people that make their way to my shop today own quartz or digital watches," says Dirghamuni. "In quartz watches, it's usually the integrated circuit boards that give way. In digital watches, the problem is usually drained batteries, and it doesn't take much time to replace them. Most of my customers just need protective stickers for the face of their watches." Sometimes, he is asked to change a watch-band that's gotten old or is starting to show signs of wear. Other times, people approach him with more serious problems—a broken glass, water droplets inside the watch, dysfunctional buttons, to name a few—which require him to think through the issue.

The more expensive the watch, the harder it is to procure spare parts, and higher the cost of repair

Watching Dirghamuni work on a timepiece is enthralling. You hand him a watch and tell him what you think is wrong with it (although sometimes what you think is wrong isn't actually the issue, and it doesn't take Dirghamuni too long to figure out what actually is). He'll grab his eyeglass and place it over his right eye, using it to examine the timepiece. Then he'll grab his tweezers (or miniature screwdrivers, depending on the watch casing) and dive into the workings of the watch. "It's weird, but the moment I start working on a watch, something in me automatically shuts out the world outside, allowing me to fully focus on the task at hand," says Dirghamuni. "It's a peaceful space to be in; I feel like there's no one else in the world—just me, my tools and the watch I'm working on. And when I'm finally done with repairing a watch, I look up and it finally hits me—the amount of time that has passed, the number of people walking up and down the street outside and the noise they're making."

No matter how long a repair takes, Dirghamuni sits patiently, cross-legged with his back straight. He works from 8 am to 12 noon, followed by a three-hour lunch and rest break, and resumes his work at 3 pm and works till 7 pm. Throughout the duration of his time at the shop, Dirghamuni doesn't eat or drink anything, and as a result, he doesn't get any nature calls during those hours. And that's important to Dirghamuni, as he runs the shop all by himself, because of which he cannot leave his shop unattended. "I'm glad that my body has been cooperating even at this age, and I think I'll stick to watch-repairing for a few more years," says Dirghamuni. Currently, he is one of the few people left in Patan who fixes timepieces for a living. "Around 40 years ago, there were around 10 watchmakers in Lalitpur—some in Lagankhel and some in Pulchowk, among other places," he says. "But in another, say 10 years, judging from how things are looking, this craft might not survive."

Dirghamuni's shop, although nameless and small, is easily the most sought-after repair shop in the area. Dirghamuni sees anywhere from 20 to 40 (or more) customers a day. "I feel like it's my dedication to the craft and my honest work that makes people trust me with their timepieces," he says. "A timepiece-restorer also needs to be gutsy. It might look like I'm just poking little bits and pieces of a watch with a tweezer, but there's a certain level of confidence that's needed to do what I do. You have to dive in and be sure about what you are doing. And I think that's all there is to being successful in any profession."