Pursuit of Happiness

Unlocking the habit

GMR Varalakshmi Foundation’s CEO V Raghunathan has a fascination for locks - the older the better

Harsha Vadlamani

Security is the last thing on V Raghunathan’s mind when he buys a lock. So much so, that he once bought a lock that is itself kept under lock and key in a living room cupboard at his home in a posh Hyderabad locality. This particular cupboard is home to about 650 old and antique locks that have been collected over a period of 30 years by Raghunathan, the 69-year-old CEO of GMR Varalakshmi Foundation, the CSR arm of GMR.

What began as a fascination with just one rare lock 39 years ago has now become a serious hobby for Raghunathan, who is counted among the best lock collectors in the country. “I was on vacation with my wife and the cottage we were staying at had a unique-looking lock. I was fascinated by it and offered to buy the guard a new lock in exchange for that one. Little did he know what he was giving up on,” laughs Raghunathan, who scored his second from his grandfather’s house in Lalgudi village, Tamil Nadu. Every holiday or work trip since then has included a trek to local flea markets, junk stores and antique stores. “I love travelling to Gujarat and Rajasthan because these states have the best collections,” he says.

The former professor of finance at IIM Ahmedabad and president of ING Vysya calls his locks mechanical puzzles, and they truly seem so. Apart from varying in size and shape, some of the locks also have trick settings. The biggest lock measures over 3.5 feet, the smallest is about half a centimetre long, the heaviest weighs 30 kg and the lightest of all is just a few grams. There are even locks in the shape of keys themselves.

One of Raghunathan’s favourites — as difficult as it is for him to choose — is a lock with five keys but only one visible keyhole. Unlocking four successive keyholes reveals the final one. “There are times when I spend 10 days doing nothing but trying to crack a trick lock. For some, there are no keys, so I get my key-maker to design new ones,” he says. 

While flea markets are his primary sources for adding to his collection, Raghunathan also deals with exclusive antique sellers. “If they get a lock they think I might be interested in buying, they get in touch,” he explains. He maintains a hand-drawn catalogue of all his locks, complete with details about its shape, the trick to open it and the date of purchase. 

Raghunathan’s fascination with locks has made its way into his latest book, which was launched early last year. In the book — Locks, Mahabharata and Mathematics — he connects the titular subjects together and draws a parallel between the trickery involved in locks and mathematics, relating it to stories from the epic poem.   

One day will come, Raghunathan says, when he might just sell his collection to someone who will appreciate and preserve it. But he doesn’t want them to be donated to a museum, where he says no one will bother to check them out. “Though I have spent a lot of money collecting these locks, their value is more emotional than monetary to me. I may not have kids, but I have 650 babies.”