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The typewriter lives on in India

India's typewriter culture survives the age of computers in offices where bureaucracy demands typed forms and in rural areas where many homes don't have electricity.

September 01, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Repairmen work at New Delhi's Chawla Typewriters.
Repairmen work at New Delhi's Chawla Typewriters. (Mark Magnier, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New Delhi — It's a stultifying afternoon outside the Delhi District Court as Arun Yadav slides a sheet of paper into his decades-old Remington and revs up his daily 30-word-a-minute tap dance.

Nearby, hundreds of other workers clatter away on manual typewriters amid a sea of broken chairs and wobbly tables as the occasional wildlife thumps on the leaky tin roof above.

"Sometimes the monkeys steal the affidavits," Yadav said. "That can be a real nuisance."

The factories that make the machines may be going silent, but India's typewriter culture remains defiantly alive, fighting on bravely against that omnipresent upstart, the computer. (In fact, if India had its own version of "Mad Men," with its perfumed typing pools and swaggering execs, it might not be set in the 1960s but the early 1990s, India's peak typewriter years, when 150,000 machines were sold annually.)

Credit for its lingering presence goes to India's infamous bureaucracy, as enamored as ever of outdated forms (often in triplicate) and useless procedures, documents piled 3 feet high and binders secured by pink string.

Other loyalists include the over-50 generation and, conversely, young people in rural areas who dream of a call-center job but can't yet afford a laptop. There are also certain advantages to a machine without a power cord in a country where 400 million people still lack electricity.

"Power failures help us," said Rajesh Palta of Delhi's Universal Typewriter shop, whose family fled Pakistan for India during the 1947 partition with their most precious possessions: four typewriters.

Perhaps it's telling that India decided only last year to remove typewriter production as a component of its wholesale price index measuring inflation.

Although bureaucrats in growing numbers embrace computers, the governments of several states, including those containing New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, still require manual typing tests. And that's music to the ears of typing institutes, second-hand typewriter dealers and repairmen.

"I don't know why the test hasn't changed," said Debolina Mitra, a manual instructor at Kolkata's George Telegraph Typing Institute. "It's bureaucrat logic."

India's lingering love affair with correction fluid and carbon paper befits a country that often seems caught in two centuries, where high-tech companies and an ambitious space program coexist with human-powered rickshaws and feudal village life.

Indian firm Godrej and Boyce, one of the world's last typewriter makers, released its first commercial model in 1955, reportedly inspired by then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw it as a "symbol of independent and industrialized India." Nehru reportedly received one of the first machines.

Over the next few decades, owning a manual typewriter was a major status symbol. "Small companies with a typewriter were really going somewhere," Palta said.

Demand during the 1960s and '70s was so high that customers waited up to six months for new machines, which cost nearly as much as a recent engineering graduate's yearly salary of about $175.

"The better customers got first dibs," said C.K. Chawla, head of New Delhi's Chawla Typewriters, which suffered a break-in during the early 1970s and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's gold-plated machine — in for repairs — was stolen.

"Usually insurance companies take forever," said Chawla, whose typewriter repair business is still a going concern, even if he has been forced to diversify. "But with Gandhi's, they settled almost immediately."

Typing was all but compulsory for any woman who wanted a job, said Geeta Meshran, 53, who banged away for 22 years in the Mumbai government's typing pool. Efficiency wasn't always paramount there. "I often worked as slowly as possible, so I wouldn't have to retype the page," she said.

A reflection of the machine's glamour is captured in the 1970 film "Bombay Talkie," with one classic scene showing women in canary yellow bell bottoms dancing atop oversized typewriter keys and singing "typewriter, tip, tip, tip" in high-pitched tones. "Typewriter keys represent the keys of life," one character says. "And we human beings dance on them."

"Typewriters were a real symbol of Indian life. Just consider how many laws and birth certificates came from its keys," said Abhishek Jain, who at age 13 set a world record in 1991 typing 117 words a minute on a Godrej manual.

(This followed another 15-minutes-of-fame moment when a typist from Mumbai, then known as Bombay, secured a Guinness record in 1986 for typing continuously for 123 hours on a Godrej.)

But by the mid-1990s, the typewriter was on its way out in India. Godrej — which once advertised that its durable machine "makes a good secretary a great one" — lasted longer than competitors by increasing exports as foreign makers dropped out.

Many typists began to pick up computer skills as manual dealers diversified into selling fax and photocopy machines.

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