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Year-End Special: The ministry of broken things

The street calls of the repairwallas of Mumbai have faded as a society in the habit of mending things moves to a use-and-throw culture. A tribute to the invisible workers who once held us together

Iftikhar Khan of New Life Watch Company. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Iftikhar Khan of New Life Watch Company. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Ankita Kshirsagar, perched on the parapet of Thane’s busy Gaondevi maidan on a Sunday afternoon, is an impatient 21-year-old who can be easily mistaken for a customer in her jeans and red top. She is surrounded by the implements of the kalhaiwalla: metal forceps, a basin of water, a pump to air-blast the coal, a box for the naushadar, or aluminium chloride powder, and allied metal tools with which to scrape and re-tin the pots. There are no customers at the moment, so she is busy with her phone.

This spot in the market has been occupied, for over half a century, by her family—her grandfather, Kondebhau Mukti Kshirsagar, her uncle, and her father, Ramesh Kshirsagar. She steps in when he is on breaks. One of the only kalhaiwallas in this area to have survived the changing economy, the family’s primary kalhai business now comes from restaurants as distant as Vasai, Panvel, Navi Mumbai and surrounding Thane, which send large kitchen vessels across to be re-tinned. Business from homes dipped a long time ago, once households moved from copper, aluminium and tin to stainless steel. Now, says Ankita, copper is making a comeback of sorts with health advocates. People are retrieving grandma’s utensils from the family loft and want to have them restored.

Much like the West, some sections of India have become a use-and-throw society. Not so long ago, you could see repairwallas going from street to street, offering to fix broken items, but their distinctive cry disappearing from our streets seems to map urban progress. Even in the tier II towns of cotton-growing Marathwada, where foam and spring are replacing foldable cotton-stuffed gaddas in local mattress stores, the ruiwalla finds himself perilously replaceable. Some are managing to hold out. Every Gujarati ben in the south Mumbai triangle (Walkeshwar, Bhuleshwar and Babulnath) still sends her precious wedding silks, Banarasis and Patolas to the renowned rafoogar Vali Mohamed of Ahmedabad for a darn and mend. In Hyderabad’s Old City sits Mahboob Radios, where vintage Grundigs, Murphys and HMVs stack up like a living museum of sound. In Pune, Kale Pens at Budhvar Peth makes a small contribution to keeping fountain pens alive. Madan Jee & Co. in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk is where you would take your dad’s DSLR and aunt’s Polaroid for a retune.

But the skills needed for all this are becoming increasingly rare.

In 2015, violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman’s Lalgudi Trust organized a repair workshop in Chennai with master craftsman James Wimmer—at present, Indian violins have to be sent overseas for repair as cost-effective synthetic glues replace animal-derived adhesives (traditionally called saresh). This loss of repair culture has two kinds of impact: the irreplaceable loss of skill, and the loss of a preservation ethic. The economic cost to society is great, as cheaper products are crafted with planned obsolescence to boost sales, resulting in the continuing pile-up of trash and waste.

Once, Sumeet mixers, Duckback schoolbags, Prestige pressure cookers and Godrej bureaus used to be purchased sparingly—at the time of the new school year, Diwali, a wedding—and would last a lifetime. Today, annual upgrades in design and style, colour and form make for an insatiable market. Companies like Duckback failed because their products were too sturdy, failing to stimulate the repeat business that drives modern commerce.

The larger question remains: What do we lose when we cease to repair the things we own, especially when repair costs money, time and effort? Is repairing an ethic that merely feeds our nostalgia, or does it offer a more tangible connect to the past?

This 60-year-old ‘ruiwalla’ has been repairing mattresses and pillows for 40 years.
This 60-year-old ‘ruiwalla’ has been repairing mattresses and pillows for 40 years.

The long retreat

Today, like a rare bird that retreats to denser jungle, its hunting grounds depleted by suburban growth, the ruiwalla roams the galis of slums, where people still feel the need to repair and restore. “Jo gareeb hain, vo kaam chalate hain, jo ameer hain, voh naya lete hain (the poor make do, those who have money, buy anew)," says a customer in Dharavi.

He doesn’t know when the ruiwalla will show up. For the ruiwalla remains as elusive as he did generations ago, with no business card or mobile phone number. He could stop for paan at the Dadar paanwalla outside Pritam Da Dhaba restaurant, and tea at the Ghatkopar East station. He makes his way through the old parts of the city. As he floats past Maheshwari Udyan, the owners of the mattress shops laughingly call him dushman (the enemy). For, the more mattresses he mends, the fewer the customers for new ones.

Walk down winding Waroda Road, behind Bandra’s Lilavati hospital, and ask for “Rafoochacha". At the intersection with Chapel Road sits the sole contender to the title Rafoogar of Bandra: Ghulam Mohammed Gaus, 75, has been sitting on these steps for nearly 20 years. He has been a rafoogar since 1964. He learnt his craft, the “Kashmiri rafoo", from a Kashmiri at a laundry near Flora Fountain. He then moved to a job with Dutee Arts, a local laundry, where his children now carry on the trade.

Old customers still send him clothes, even from the US. “I stitch using one eye," says Gaus, who has had two eye operations. “What else will I do? I know no other trade. This is my craft and because I have done it for so long, I do it with perfection, so people rely on me." Alteration tailors typically darn a patch with leather or similar material, seaming together ends with thread to mend a tear or hole. A rafoogar uses a Kashmiri darn that extracts threads from elsewhere in the torn garment, recreating the layer of cloth by stitching in the missing weft and warp of the original cloth. It’s akin to a skin graft. The resulting mend is so seamless it is near-invisible to the naked eye.

Gaus has clothes in his cupboard that are more than 25 years old. Today’s cheaper textiles are not built to last, these are wear-and-throw items that generate repeat business. Clothes made from quality material are priced out of reach of most consumers. “Earlier, everyone only had one or two good sets of clothes," he says. “They bought things that lasted. Now even so-called good clothes should not last more than three-four years or they will become unfashionable."

Gaus is also trained in restoring pashmina shawls, carpets and fine muslin, apart from the more common organza, net and cheaper stretch jeans of today. Conscious of his failing eyes, he now entrusts the more delicate work to his sons.

There are others like him, in Malad and Sion, and those who make fleeting appearances elsewhere in the city—on pavements outside the eastern suburb of Ghatkopar station, most often before festivals like Diwali and Eid, when their workload is highest—but they are a diminishing breed, their place taken by alteration tailors who work by machine.

Textile artist and weaver Priya Ravish Mehra’s first solo in 20 years, at Gallery Threshold in New Delhi earlier this year, focused on the rafoogar as a metaphor for the sudden rupture of the reliable order of things. As a child, she remembers being surrounded by rafoogars. When she began researching the textile industry, she was amazed at the failure to mention their contribution. The irony, she notes, is that the best rafoogari is as invisible as its practitioners have become.

Her work focuses on bringing them to light. “My aesthetic is a symbolic affirmation of the place, significance and act of existential ‘repair’ in the corroded fabric of any life, as well as in the life of any corroded fabric," Mehra wrote of her own work. The trick of rafoogari, she says, is to understand that there is no perfect cloth—an apt metaphor for life.

A ‘kalhaiwalla’ at work in Thane.

An invisible economy

The nerve centre of all things broken lies in Dharavi, between Mahim bridge and the T-junction that heads off to the upscale Bandra-Kurla Complex. Everything gets re-routed here: appliances and furniture that are no longer needed, clothes that no longer fit. Excavated washing machines line the road, their fans strung together and hung outside workshops like a giant’s varmala (garland). Appliances are either broken down for parts or repaired and resold. Clothes from the city’s fickle fashionable are stacked up in bundles, filling corrugated sheds up to the ceiling with every brand you could imagine. They will be darned, buttons replaced, lace restitched, dyed and laundered before being sent to second- and third-tier towns like Khed, Jalgaon, Sangli, Akola and Beed for resale.

Scraps from tailoring shops and clothes too badly torn to be recycled are broken down, first by hand, then by machine, until they become like keema (mince) and then rui— back to bleached, raw cotton, to be sold to cushion and mattress-makers as stuffing. An oblivious city sleeps on cloth of which it only recently tired.

Stacks of wood from home-interior renovations are broken down here and transported in tempos to the city’s bakeries—where it is used to bake the pav which is supplied to thousands of vada pav and pav bhaji stalls. Primary consumers have spent less this year, so the exchanges and cast-offs have reduced in number. Business is down.

There is incredulity among workers that people are so clueless about how the things they throw away can be so easily utilized again. “Most people will spend a few thousand on repair, but if the cost rises, they’ll say let’s just buy a new one," says Sonu Sharma, who followed the trail of the second-hand goods market all the way from Uttar Pradesh a couple of years ago to set up shop here. “We replace those parts and resell them. Appliances today are built to be replaced soon. Not like the old days, when they were built to last."

Washing machines and microwaves in this sector of Dharavi are sold at prices that are up to 70% lower than the market rate and come with warranties ranging from a few months to a year. Next door, plastics and paper are being loaded on to trucks heading for packaging factories in Goa. “Those who are lucky see a truck go every day," says Ahmed Khan, dozing on a pile of neatly arranged plastic. “Some of us don’t even send a truck a week. It’s a lottery." This invisible repair work sustains several economies beyond the primary market, creating a small degree of economic uplift though it never makes it to ledgers and industry valuations.

At Worli Gaon market, a few feet away from the main road, Saradaprasad Dubey has been repairing ceiling fans, Sumeet mixer-grinders and water pumps since 1972. He migrated to the city from Uttar Pradesh to work as a fitter and welder at Century mills. When the Mumbai mill industry went bust, he began repairing household goods. His small business was fanned by a boom in ceiling and table fans. His son, Ram Dubey, helps him out now—but the objects he works on haven’t changed much.

“For the poor, the repairer is the most useful man," Dubey says. “Most of my customers use the same mixer-grinder most of their lives. For the rich, maybe it’s cheaper to buy, but the new items don’t last, so they throw those away faster than my customers can come in for a second repair."

In Matunga East market, Amar Kumar sits in for the seth who has run this decades-old repair-everything store. His oldest customers are those with idli-batter grinders. The biggest problem now, he says, is that people bring imported machines with different voltage requirements. They repair them with local fitments, but they’re bound to go bust again.

The market is now controlled by exclusive service centres that charge exorbitant fixed fees—and threaten that warranties will be void if external menders tinker with the item. Established repairers like BC Shah and Co., an old institution of kitchen appliance repairs in Dadar West, where you could once find the elusive spare parts of imported Kenwoods and Morphy Richards, have been outpaced by the sales of KitchenAids and Amazon.

A harmonium being repaired at Haribhau Vishwanath Co. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Spectrum of repair

The kalhaiwalla, the knife-repair guy, the ruiwalla, the rafoogar, the bag-mender and the orchestra of knife sharpeners outside Borivali station are now functional in varying degrees. Knife-grinders get the most work, because the palaeolithic knife is unlikely to go out of fashion. The rest are suffering from what the late economist William Baumol called the Dutch Cost Disease, the ailment of some industries outpacing others. The repairwalla performs essentially the same function he did in 1964, or 1972, and we continue, sadly, to pay them as much as we did then. For, while some industries are able to calibrate their compensation to changing times, others, like the repairwallas, do not have that economic power.

A consumer economy drives home the notion that repair is what you do when you don’t have the money to replace. Repair is not aspirational. Yet, this thinking is turned on its head when it comes to some of the affluent. Well-to-do hobbyists collect antiquities, vintage clothing, and have fuelled the resurrection of retro-ware. At the New Life Watch Company on Bandra’s Hill Road, Iftikhar Khan, who began repairing watches and clocks in the 1940s as an eight-year-old apprentice to his father, says the business now depends on these hobbyists—Parsi families preserve old clocks, bringing pieces up to 100 years old for servicing. Yet, essentially, it has fallen to the elderly to preserve the past. For the young, Khan says, watches have become a hobby, like stamp collection once was. No one has the patience to find out what’s wrong, what is required to set it right. His son wants to move on to more exciting work. Alarm clocks sell for as little as Rs100 now. What is left to repair in them? he asks, pointing to his row of gleaming radial-dial transmission clocks from the 1970s.

Those who opt for repair today generally do so out of sentiment.

For the poor, the repairer is the most useful man. Most of my customers use the same mixer-grinder most of their lives. For the rich, maybe it’s cheaper to buy, but the new items don’t last, so they throw those away faster than my customers can come in for a second repair.- Saradaprasad Dubey

Singing an old tune

In the music world, repair and restoration remains important, but even here, it’s a shadow of its former self. Haribhau Vishwanath Co. near Dadar Station West, established in 1925, once had over 100 workers learning how to tune harmoniums and re-gourd sitars, tanpuras and veenas, most joining as apprentices and spending their lives with the store. Now there is barely a handful.

The first blow came with Partition, as Punjabi-Muslim workers who had honed the craft left. Now workers learn and leave in a few years. Uday Diwane, the 60-year-old proprietor, does not know if the business, which serves everyone from major artists to young students, will continue after him. The next generation is unwilling to learn the art of repair, or understand the need for it. Chinese items, easier to replace and more difficult to repair, are flooding the market. Repairs can cost from Rs8,000-10,000, depending on the instrument; only artists with an attachment to particular instruments would be willing to incur the cost.

At Furtados, the 150-year-old music shop at Marine Lines, grand and standing pianos line up like gleaming pieces of good fortune. Here, repair is a high-stakes game: Restoration and reconstruction costs can run into lakhs of rupees. The oldest piece that has come to them, from The Poona Music Society, is 110 years old. They have seen some late Edwardian and Victorian pieces as well.

Anthony Gomes, a partner, says that contrary to popular opinion, not every old piano is worth restoring. “In the music sphere, restoration is done primarily on sentiment," Gomes says. “You can upgrade strings and replace parts but essentially an old instrument remains bound by the constraints of being old and the laws of physics. It’s like restoring a vintage Mercedes. No matter how well you do it, it won’t run with the advantages of a brand new one. But yes, there is an essential richness of tenor that comes only with the maturity of wood. A good piano is one that responds well to a player, so repairs to keep that response prompt and efficient do develop only over time."

At the workshop in Sewri, the Furtados’ British master technician, D.J.Y. Smallman, sits in one of six specially outfitted rooms. The bare bones of each piano’s 12-17,000 parts are excavated here, the innards stripped bare. In room No.1 is the Steinway that’s just returned from the Arijit Singh November concert, in for a retune and service before it heads out to another show.

“To me, a piano is just a piece of furniture if it doesn’t play optimally," says Smallman. India, he adds, is one of the most exciting places for antique piano discovery, a legacy of the British Raj. They pop up in the oddest of places, in someone’s loft or home, and are ushered in to be restored. Many of them are status symbols, but dysfunctional ones may be tossed out to the bhangarwalla, only to be picked up and given a place in someone else’s living room.

After all, isn’t repairing the craft of turning what was into what will be?

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