Amid the traffic, noise and bustle of Santacruz’s busy SV Road, a cardboard key dangles at the entrance of a key-maker’s stall, swaying aimlessly in the wind.
“Our regular clients know us, of course,” says Chandan Shah, 26. “But this giant key often helps new clients identify and approach us.”
Below the key is a handpainted red sign that declares the stall ‘Shah’s Computerised Key Cutting’. Chandan has worked here since 2005, sharing the 100-sq-ft cubbyhole with the shop’s owner, Mohammed Shah.
The only pieces of furniture inside are a few shelves lined with dummy keys, a small table for the automated cutting machine and a stool.
“With the machine, creating duplicate keys has become as easy as churning butter,” says Chandan, laughing. “It costs more, though, because the machine consumes a lot of electricity.”
A key maker for 11 years, Chandan came to Mumbai from Chhapra, Bihar, in 2001, just after his Class 10 exams. “My elder brother was already working as a key maker on a footpath in Dadar,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a farmer. There is no money in farming. So I came to Mumbai to make money like him.”
Chandan’s earnings have tripled over the course of his career — going from R3,000 a month to R9,000, with the cost per key going from a minimum of R2 to a minimum of R20 for a key and R100 for a house visit.
“I feel lucky because most key makers still file keys manually, working on footpaths and street corners,” he says.
Chandan starts his day at 9 am, with a quick bath and a breakfast of rotis and milk. He then takes a brisk walk to his workplace, where he signs in at 10 am.
Between spells of punching out keys, Chandan chats with his neighbour, a paper scrap vendor, sipping cups of tea and, in the evening, munching on a few biscuits.
Often, though, he gets called out into the suburbs to help families locked out of their homes, people locked out of their cars or panicked customers who have misplaced the keys to their safes.
“The one thing I don’t like about this job,” he says, laughing, “is that people who have lost a key or got locked out are usually very cranky — and we become the punching bags.”
Then, in rare instances, Chandan is made to feel like the hero of the day and all his efforts feel worthwhile.
“Once, a family out for a late-night stroll at Juhu beach lost their house keys in the sand and were stranded,” he says. “They called me at midnight and I rushed to their home, studied the bolt and made a duplicate key by hand, on the spot. The family thanked me profusely.”
Earlier, Chandan says he would also climb into locked homes through a window or up a pipe, to unlock a door when a key had been misplaced. “I no longer perform such antics now,” he says. “It’s very risky and my wife gets worried.”
Since home is nearby, Chandan heads back for lunch, usually dal, rice and sabzi at 2 pm. His work day done at 8 pm, he is back for dinner — roti, sabzi and pickle — at 9 pm.
Sundays are his day off and he redirects even emergency cases to another key maker. “My Sundays are dedicated to my wife,” he says, smiling. “We go to Juhu Chowpatty to eat paani-puri and bhel. We also love to see Bhojpuri movies starring Ravi Kishen. And for dinner, she makes me a tasty mutton dish.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)