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The time machine

The typewriter lost out to the computer long ago. Today, the rat-tap-tap is almost silent and survives only because of a few dedicated fingers. A requiem to a wonderful anachronism, writes Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2008 19:55 IST
Paramita Ghosh

Mr Phillipose was neither hot nor efficient. A retired army officer from Kerala, he had come to Lucknow to be the secretary of its most well-known bookseller, Ram Advani, and to type his letters for him. Advani, who is used to nodding to Mozart while sipping the morning coffee, was in a mess each day over the massacre of the English language. Broken b’s and jumbled-up c’s — the letters were full of them.

The inattention to detail that the quality of typewriting showed up could go against you.

Typists could lose their jobs. One mistake too many, inky letters — and it was almost a character flaw. At job interviews till the 80s, it was common to be asked this very moral question: how fast and correct were you. And the right answer, without taking offence, would be: 120-140 words per minute.

Actress Deepti Naval who, as she says, “always played The Typist” as representative of the working-woman in discomfort with the middle class, avers that typing was for many, the ticket to livelihood. “In Main Zinda Hoon (1988), for instance,” she says, “I play a woman whose father is a poet but she moves in with her husband in a chawl (tenement), so that brings her down a bit. The only skill she brings from her small town upbringing is her knowledge of how to type. In those days ‘naukri mil gayee’ meant getting a manual typewriting job…”

The typist for Naval was, however, the Sensitive Sensibility. It was a demographic of people who were aware, and not necessarily great with money. ‘Office’ films of that period may have used the clickety-click of the machine to suggest the ‘sound’ of everyday tedium, but for her, the steno who would work the machine was no office cog. She was not a doormat; she would go into the world and fight. “In Rang Birangi (1983), Anita Sood (Naval’s character) was sensible and independent-minded. She didn’t play the game to make it.”

The wonderful thing about typewriters was that they didn’t change for 50 years. “The machine was an 1873 invention but the early Remingtons were even assembled in India…with computers you date every month,” says writer Ruskin Bond who bought his first typewriter, an Olympia, for £ 20 in London in 1951 and still keeps the receipt.

“We saw William Holden write the first line of the comeback story for faded star Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard on a typewriter. Della Street, Perry

Mason’s secretary, was a furious typist in the made-for-television movies…”

Typewriters and type-writing were most of all about Time — before time took care of it. In the Seventies, owning a typewriter meant social and cultural capital. It meant you had access to things. Pulak Chakroborty, a former State Bank employee from Chhapra (Bihar) and the in-charge of coordination between Bengali film distributors and the local Kalibari for film-shows during 12 days a year, would attend to his duties in the bank, type the letter on the office typewriter and cycle to the Railway Mail Service to drop it off. Then he bought his own Remington and Mithun, his son, became the boy everybody was jealous of in school. “We had a typewriter, so I was the only one in class whose copybooks had his name, class and section typed on the labels. In our time, our toys, our treats were simple. I used to make ‘medicines’ by grinding powder into a bottle and running a strip around it on which the name would be typed. Earlier, in the absence of access, there was individuality. We were known as the family with the typewriter. My father had got the movies to town…”

A mixed crowd of aspirants — writers, secretaries, hacks, air-hostesses — attended typing schools. They wanted to ‘set’ their hands on the machine, learn the ‘touch method.’ Publisher Urvashi Butalia, whose 120 words-per-minute speed on the typewriter comes courtesy a certain Mrs Francis’s school at Jangpura, owns a Blickensderfer, an Hermes, an Olivetti and a Brother. “People have dogs, I have typewriters,” she says. A professional writer’s discipline, she maintains, is made out of the number of pages s/he has typed every day. “When I see the page curl and fall over the carriage, I feel better. Despite editing on the computer screen, I have to have a printout; it’s the only time I can read for continuity,” she adds.

With computers, most writers of the earlier generation have a relationship of opposition.

Poet and bureaucrat Ashok Vajpeyi says that with typewriters, one thought a lot about what one had to say, about structure. A typewritten page creates a distance between the writer and the written word. “I have no need for the ease with which I am told I can shift paragraphs on the computer. I’m a first-draft man. Typewriters are contemplative; computers are machines in a hurry,” says Vajpeyi — and don’t the type-writers whose earnings are now down to Rs 200 a day know it!

In the whodunit of the Death of the Typewriter, there are many conspiracy theories. Critic Rajendra Yadav says that it was the computer revolution brought in by Rajiv Gandhi that did it. Rajesh Gupta,

a short-hand teacher who would run a busy typing school 15 years back and has since, turned homeopath, says it was a generation in haste. “Short hand is a

long-term course,” he says. No one wants to be a steno, they can earn more if they take computer classes. But I still have 25 students.” “Can I meet them?” I ask, fixing a time. When I arrive, the institute, up a flight of stairs, is pitch-dark. A transformer had burst nearby and the students had gone home. So Dr Rajesh Gupta had put on a white coat and was grinding some pellets for beri-beri.