Sound Devices and Other Ecologies from Lamington Road, the Electronic Cluster in Mumbai

Rupali Gupte

Global flows

Pradeep who had migrated from Gujarat in the late 60s, had a small shop in Mumbai’s Lamington Road area, where he repaired sound mixers. The shop was located on the ground floor of a redeveloped building that was now completely rented for offices and small-scale manufacturing. Pradeep, currently 70 years old, had picked up the skill from a small local training institute in the area when he was in his early twenties. The institute, which goes by the name of Radio Electric Institute (REI), still runs on Lamington Road. The institute was established in 1940, to train young people in radio and television engineering. The institute offered diplomas and was meant for those who could not afford expensive degrees or did not have the social capital that gave them access to mainstream university courses. Located on two levels of a building on Lamington Road, it had an informal library, teaching spaces as well as staying facilities for people from far off locations. Over the years, the institute kept updating its courses, shifting from a radio course in the 1940s, to a television course in 1967, digital electronics in 1978, micro-processors in 1981, instrumentation in 1989, computer hardware and an affiliation with the National Centre for Software Technology of the Department of Electronics, Government of India in 1997, to the latest shifts in training students in repairing and assembling new electronic devices including computers, smart phones etc. Pradeep, who studied at this institute in the early 70s, also updated his skills by reading pirated books on computer technology as well as other magazines that were sold on the pavements of Flora Fountain, the older colonial part of the city. The piles of books, he remembers, were so high there that one had to point to the right book with a long bamboo stick. Pradeep himself had started off as a television mechanic. He would go from door to door repairing televisions in South Bombay. Later he joined NELCO, an electronics company. He continued to do freelance work repairing slot machines and Jukeboxes at the local Irani cafes because he loved the brun maska, a local delicacy of hard bread and butter. He said the algorithm for jukeboxes was simple. For every 100 rupees people invested they would ‘win’ rupees 60. The rest was the owner’s profit. Later in 1977 he set up his shop in the current location. Pradeep had seen the transition from locally manufactured sound devices to inexpensive ones that came from China.

Lately he had noted it was becoming more and more difficult to find faults in the mother boards as the components were becoming smaller and smaller. He would spend an entire week finding faults. He would find six faults and then the seventh would be difficult to find, making his entire week’s work worthless as the device would not start working. However, he said he really enjoyed the process and so continued to do this work.

Working Out

Pradeep’s friends often advised him to sell his shop, which was located in a prime locality in Mumbai. One gentleman from the Marwadi community, known for their financial skills, walked him through the math, which proved how futile it was for him to retain his shop and his business. The figures showed he would live a much more comfortable retired life on the interest he would get from the bank if he sold his shop. However, Pradeep could not bear the thought of stopping his work, which he enjoyed very much. Instead, to offset the costs, he divided his shop into two parts and struck a partnership deal with his friends Adrian and Raymond Naronha, who had a shop in the same building. The friends had a wholesale and retail shop selling public address systems including amplifiers, speakers and microphones, on the first floor of the same building but needed extra space to maintain an active stock. They had run out of space in their own premises but did not have money to rent more space. Instead they made Pradeep a partner in their business, offering a share of their profits. The half space that Pradeep created from the division of his shop, became an extension of their friends’ first floor enterprise. A helper would be sent to fetch items from the storage every time a customer arrived at the shop above. Pradeep was assigned an added responsibility of keeping a watch on who took what from the storage space. Pradeep installed a small surveillance device made of a rear-view mirror from his old bicycle, to watch the goods being ferried in and out of the place. Pradeep also shared the part of the shop he retained, with his daughter who ran a business supplying machines for currency note-counting, fake note detection and paper shredders. These machines were also made in China. She acquired them through vendors from the Mumbai port. Though she did not keep any of the supplies in his shop, her inventory was painted on its wooden shutters with her contact number displayed in bold, visible letters. Pradeep’s own shop consisted of a table, a chair, a cupboard where he kept his tools that he swore he would never share with anyone and a collection of Gods who adorned his walls. 

Trips and Kicks

Pradeep had lost part of his business to Chinese sound mixers that were difficult to repair but were now flooding the market. Though his shop’s subdivision gave him an additional income and freed up some of his time, Pradeep couldn’t stop repairing. He now started repairing all kinds of devices around him. He first added a series of supports for his lower back to the chair in his shop. This he said made his chair one of the most ergonomic chairs in the world. Then he started making pens for himself. It all started when Pradeep realised that he was losing his pens as random strangers would borrow them at banks and other places he visited. He therefore decided to make ‘pens in disguise’ that people would not register as pens.  He started making pens from pieces of acrylic sheets lying around in the shop. These sheets would be used as fillers in the sound mixers and would be cut into odd shapes. Pradeep now started using these odd shaped pieces to make his pens. He took one triangular piece and started bending it with careful application of heat from a hair dryer. He later scored it to insert a refill and added a spring that would allow him to click the pen open and shut like other pens. He started making a series of iterations of these; pens made from brass pipes, pens that jingled, short pens, tall pens, the list went on. These were all made of materials that had been lying around in his shop for years. He soon had a museum of pens that he proudly displayed to friends around. Similarly, Pradeep modified his watch that had a white dial and white hands with a contrasting dial extension that would allow him to read the time clearly. He complained that with advancing age his eyes were failing him. He needed to modify many devices around him, which he said were designed for more able-bodied people. Pradeep kept a book of ideas with him where he constantly kept noting and sketching.

The Repair Ecology

Around Pradeep’s shop is a whole ecology of shops selling sound devices who are constantly approached by customers for repairing older devices. While there are many technicians, most do not have the resources to set up a shop for themselves, which Pradeep had managed in his younger years. They are hired by the shops that sell these sound devices. There are all kinds of arrangements involved here. The shops often give the repair technicians a table at the threshold of their shops. This space is a foot inside the shop and a foot outside into the pavement. In this way the traders do not have to give up much of their own space, which is already very small. The technicians are not tied to the shop. They are free to work in as many shops as they like. Some shops give them a lot of work, which amounts to the person working with the shop permanently. However, the arrangements are more tenuous. The Agboatwala building on Lamington road is a property under litigation. The case has gone on for so long that the Mansion on the property is now in ruins. On the compound wall of the building many shops selling sound devices have come up. They sell or rent speakers, amplifiers, mixers. One of them is run by Rahim, who lives in the adjoining Haji Kasam chawl. He continued his uncle’s business as all his uncle’s daughters moved to Gujarat after their marriage. His interest in the business developed from his fascination with the azan that he would hear every day from the speakers blaring in the neighbourhood mosque. He would love to watch his uncle test the sound before selling them to the mosque and renting out for various events. When his uncle could no longer continue his business, Rahim offered to run it for him. Rahim’s shop is also located along the compound wall of the Agboatwala building. The shop is already an extension of the compound wall of the property under litigation, which further extends itself into the multiple spaces for repair technicians to inhabit. The extensions keep creating new property and new occupations.

Sourcing Parts

Like REI many institutes for short courses in assembling and repairing have emerged in the vicinity. With an active repair ecology, many young people are also teaching themselves through YouTube videos, Tiktok and other uploaded material on the internet. They watch these videos on their smartphones and also post multiple videos of their own. The area also sees an active ecology of college students who have projects to complete for their courses in engineering. Due to this. many places have emerged that sell ready kits. Vega Kits is one such store that has emerged as a specialist. The store is located within the premises of Gala stores and has a complex sub tenancy relationship with Gala. Both stores run simultaneously in the same place.

Mani Anna’s shop located under Frere bridge in Grant Road is another supplier of recycled components picked up by students and other repair technicians in the vicinity. His shop consists of a box, on which he has placed another box that he can fold and take away. The lower box remains on the street as a docking device for the rest of his shop, even when he takes the more portable parts home at night. He has devised a support structure for a roof over this, which protects him from the harsh sun and the rain. Mani Anna buys old computers and other electronic devices. His technician friend identifies working components from these. He sends the rest to other recycling enterprises. A mother board for instance sells for anywhere between rupees 200 to 600. Mani claims that he has become a household name on Lamington Road. Everyone knows if they need to replace components for older devices he is the one to be contacted. Anna has been running his shop for 20 years. He managed to get a Municipal licence in 2010. This number is boldly painted on the lower part of his docked shop. Mani Anna got into the business of vending old electronic components from a longer practice of vending. He arrived in Mumbai from Tamil Nadu at the age of 23 and lived with his relatives in Matunga. He initially worked as a helper in restaurants in Matunga and then started vending cutlery at Flora Fountain. He lost his shop in a large demolition drive after which someone told him about Lamington Road which had a large ecology of electronic equipment. Initially he worked as a helper in one of the shops there and then mobilized his experience of vending to set up his own shop. Over twenty years in Lamington road, Anna has consolidated his business through a robust network. 

The Water boy

Lamington Road has become an ecology for many kinds of practices. It becomes an extended home and workplace for many.  Sarwant Kumar is a water boy who works around Lamington Road. He lives in the northern suburbs of Mumbai, in Nalasopara and works in a shop around Lamington Road that delivers filtered, chilled water to the shops around.  He makes three rounds in the area, at 10 am, 12 pm and then 4 pm. The shops in the area do not have access to clean drinking water so many small water enterprises have filled these gaps. Sarwant Kumar works for one such enterprise in Surti Mohalla, close to Lamington Road. The shop gets water every day from a tanker. It has invested in a filter and a large refrigerator. Every day the water is filtered, chilled and filled in 20 litre jugs to transport to various shops in the vicinity. The water shop employs eight young people who make multiple trips in the area. They deliver water to Lamington Road, Metro Cinema, Radio Centre and Manish market areas. Each person carries 40 jugs on their cart. These jugs are priced rupees 80 per day or rupees 2000 per month. Sarwant Kumar’s friend who works as a tailor on Lamington Road recommended this job to him.

The Masseur

Alkeshwar Kumar is a masseur in his late 60s whose shop consists of a chair, a stool and 5 to 6 bottles of massage oils. He says the neighbouring shop selling electronic goods has been kind enough to let him set up his shop ‘rent-free’. He is referring to the pavement where he locates himself. This is his anchor space. However, he moves around Lamington road to wherever people call him. The landmark for his shop is Imperial Cinema, where he says has been sitting since the year the cult movie Sholay released. He is connected to various people over the mobile phone network. Alkeshwar Kumar ran away from his home in Kanpur when he was a boy. His brother who is still in Kanpur runs a barber’s shop. Alkeshwar sets up his shop every day at 4 pm and goes on till late in the night. He earns around Rs. 300 to 400 a day and rents a small room in Nagpada, which is enough to place a bed. He pays Rs. 3000 for this space. He spends most of his time in the city, which he says is home for him. He goes to his room only to sleep at night.