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The clickety-clack of keys is a fading sound. But the typewriter and the subculture around it are making a last stand

Written by Sharon Fernandes |
June 6, 2010 5:12:30 pm

The clickety-clack of keys is a fading sound. But the typewriter and the subculture around it are making a last stand
Do you know who Mr and Mrs Ek Botte are?” Not the question we expected. But clearly these two are very important people. We told him we didn’t know anyone by that name. “This is what we call people who type with one finger. ‘Botte’ means fingers in Marathi. These people just jab and poke the keyboard,” said Ashok Abhyankar,his voice seething.

Abhyankar has a reason to be indignant. He has been teaching people how to type with all their fingers for the last 30 years. At his typing institute in Dadar,Mumbai,he has taught many how to get their English and Marathi lined up neatly and double-spaced. The concerto playing out every day at Abhyankar’s institute is a symphony of asdfg;lkjh played at beginner level,hitting the crescendo with a zippy “a quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. Typing is a physical art,it takes a huge thump from a finger to get over 400 pieces of machinery to spring into action and get a strip of metal holding an embossed letter to hit out on the ink ribbon. The product is on a humble scroll before you.

It was just 55 years ago that Jawaharlal Nehru,who had a thing for thingamajigs,thumped his fingers on a Godrej-Boyce and declared,in endearing,predictable hyperbole,the beginning of a revolution. “That was our first indigenous typewriter,” says Milind Dukle,GM manufacturing,Godrej & Boyce. “Earlier we had foreign companies assembling typewriters.” The company has sold hundreds of thousands of typewriters since. “1992 was our best year,” Dukle is wistful. Last year,Godrej stopped manufacturing the typewriter. The last manufactured typewriter,the last serial number has been kept at Godrej & Boyce’s vault in Mumbai.

But you have not heard the last from the typewriter,somebody somewhere still slides a sheet of paper into the scroll,checks the ribbon and does the arduous,hard-touch version of qwerty. The subculture around the typewriter — the secretary who types out dictation notes and the clerks punching out documents at courts,passport offices and other government offices — is alive,amid iPod swingers and laptop holders.
For the last 15 years,PM Wasnik has made the pavement across the sessions court in Fort Mumbai his second home. He arrives there at 10 am,places a Remington typewriter on a stool in front of him and gets down to business till the clock strikes 5.30 pm. “From affidavits to lease licences and power of attorney,I type out a variety of documents,” says Wasnik.

Many like Wasnik have made typewriting their livelihood and can be seen waiting patiently for customers outside the sessions court and High Court. “Earlier,there were four or five of us. Today there are 12 to 15,” says Krishna Gaikar,who types “50-60 pages every day” on an old typewriter of Rayala Corporation from Madras.

At Strand Road,Kolkata,right outside the Bankshall Court of central Kolkata (where most civic disputes are settled),a silent army of 60 typists gathers every morning. Here,errant sheets of A4 papers are recaptured and arranged in neat piles,ink pads are moistened with hurried dabs and a perfunctory puja offered with a quick twirl of agarbattis on rusty Remingtons and Godrejs. Their keys shiny with use,their threadbare ribbon clinging on for dear life and the spacebar blackened by years of use. These typewriters are ringing out one last battle cry against computers.

“Thankfully,we don’t have to go searching for work. Even on worst days we at least get five to ten customers,” says Gagan Sen. By “customers”,Sen means those wide-eyed first-time visitors to courts who need to get legal documents like affidavits and agreements typed out in a hurry. “We also sell stamp papers,” says Sen.
But what Sen,very modestly,doesn’t choose to volunteer is the fact that they act as unofficial legal advisers to many clients. “I have been here for the past 30 years. Obviously,I know a thing or two about the business,” says Shyamal Saha,a typist who sits near Sen.

In the sooty office of the Laurelled Typewriter Repair shop in Kolkata,a mound of typewriter carcasses gathers dust,as SK Chatterjee who has been in the business for 50 years,holds out hope. “I will not refrain from saying that business is actually quite good. Most of the government offices are our clients but the most important client is the police department. They cannot do without typewriters because they need to send out circulars and for that they need to get things stencilled. And you cannot do that with computers,” says Chatterjee. He is a persistent man. “There is no way legal documents can be drafted without typewriters,” he says. The repair shop handles work for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation,the passport department and services many pieces in the Writer’s Building.

The clickety-clack of typewriters can still be heard at the National Association of Blind (NAB) in Mumbai,where blind children are encouraged to take up typing classes in order to make them self-sufficient. “We encourage them to do manual typewriting because that gives them a sense of touch. Once they are proficient,they graduate to computers,” says Clarence Gomes,director of the NAB.
The syllabus and style of teaching remain the same at Davar’s College,Mumbai,which started typewriting courses way back in 1900s. But it serves newer needs. “Last year,an 80-year-old man enrolled in our typing class,” says director Silloo A Chinigar. “He wanted to be quick at chatting with his grandchildren in the US,” she says.
(With inputs from Priyanka Pereira in Mumbai and Premankur Biswas in Kolkata)

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