The Key is to Keep Writing

The story of the typewriter in India told through street typists, hacks outside courts and much-loved writers

Written by Shahid Amin | Published: January 21, 2017 2:10:43 am
typewriter, india typewriter, mumbai typewriters, mumbai typewriter repair, kolkata typewriter repair, Story of the Typewriter in India Mumbai typewriter repair-woman Asha Velankar. (Courtesy: Chirodeep Chaudhuri)

Name: With Great Truth and Regard: the Story of the Typewriter in India
Authour: Sidharth Bhatia (ed) and Chirodeep Chaudhuri
Publisher; Godrej/Roli Books
Pages: 304
Price: Rs 2,500

“Made to drink water from pipes, suffer words that are typed, ailing we all are from runs and sore eyes; what else to do but cry out to Curzon Viceroy” (harbinger of such changes in everyday life): ‘Lafz padhna pada hai type ke, pani peena pada hai pipe ka; pet chalta hain ankh aayi hai, Lat Curzon ki duhaai hai.’ So wrote Akbar Allahabadi, the great satirist of modernity, at the beginning of the 20th century. Half a century later, V.S. Naipaul, grandson of a UP peasant who had labored hard and then settled in the sugar colony of Trinidad, found his long-dreamt-of vocation in a “BBC room in London”, punching out his first sentence: ‘Sitting at … an old BBC typewriter with something like a monkey crouch’ (Finding the Centre).

Among resident Indians, R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond let their fingers flit over the keyboard, producing reams of measured creativity. Bond is quoted here: “I have to be very careful and not make too many mistakes. The typewriter forces you to pay attention.” It is of a piece that when the letter B fell off Bond’s first baby portable typewriter, he “continued typing his stories without the letter B and then filling them in by hand.”

typewriter, india typewriter, mumbai typewriters, mumbai typewriter repair, kolkata typewriter repair, Story of the Typewriter in IndiaOne of the great joys of this beautifully illustrated book is the way it goes about painting endearing pictures of the Indians who have wielded this instrument, from street typists of Ahmedabad to hacks outside the courts, who can punch a legally tenable foolscap affidavit for all times and seasons. There are thumbnail sketches of Maharukh Calagopi, dispensing chemist of Dhobi Talao, who still types 300-odd homeopathic medicine bottle labels on her battered Olympia typewriter; the octogenarian Vasudev Barve of Vile Parle, who has been teaching touch typing for 30 years, he claims, in just 25 minutes. Capping it all is the story of Bhide of Dadar who, after failing to get into the famed JJ School of Arts, took to typing portraits on his machine. It takes Bhide six to seven hours – Dilip Kumar was most difficult to type-etch “because he had so much hair”. A full page is devoted to a photograph of the touch-artist displaying his sketches strewn around his instrument, with Mario Miranda himself signing his reworked cartoons with the line: “I think you have a wonderful touch, Mr Bhide!”

The story of the typewriter in India is told through such lives spent behind the letter machine: the punctilious high caste male office workers of Chennai and Kolkata who could churn out word-perfect typed sheets at great speed, not to forget the rocketing careers of typists turned politicos like R.K. Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s steno, who now sits at the Congress Working Committee’s high table. Compared to the US and UK, women in India were slow to join the typing labour force. The initial domination of this field by Eurasian, Anglo-Indian and Goan women gave rise by the Sixties to the entry of the “twice born”, sometimes necessitating separate office canteens for male and female typists. By the late 1970s, the unisex neighbourhood typing school “became a rendezvous point… we would hang out for five to 10 minutes after class”, says one Feroz Ahmad of the early 1980s, untainted by the spectre of ‘love jihad’.

Strung together with such small histories, the framing narrative of this book is the slow growth and eventual success of the business house of Godrej, which stood up to the challenging task of assembling an India-made typewriter. If machine-tooling over 12,000 metal moving parts was no mean feat for its time, facing up to the marketing might of American company Remington, which had its own plant in India, was an even more daunting task. Within a decade after Independence, an Indian-assembled machine, the M-9 pointedly named ‘The All Indian Typewriter’, was presented to the then Prime Minister at the 1957 session of the All India Congress. The book presents a canonical photograph of Nehru in his immaculate sherwani, stooping over the “All Indian”, poised to strike the keys with all ten fingers. This was at the Avadi session of the Congress, which pledged to build a “socialistic pattern of society” in the country. Next year, at the brand new Industrial Fair Ground – the Pragati Maidan of today – President Rajendra Prasad was shown a similar typewriter with a larger roller, tailored for tabulation. The paper sticking out of the machine bore the confidence-boosting phrase ‘India Can Make it’ artistically typed out in large italics. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Shahid Amin is a Delhi-based historian

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