My Typewriter springs a surprise

As most readers know by now, I do all my writing pecking out the letters with one finger on an ancient typewriter. It was in 1954, when I was made a senior editor, that I gifted myself an Olivetti Lettera 22 — a 1950 model portable that had won international prizes for design. Then, when I was leaving Ceylon in 1968, I was gifted at a farewell party the 1963 version of the same typewriter. And it has served me well since, though my Man and Girl Fridays tend to complain that broken letters, clogged loops, and letters that do not appear clearly, despite my elephantine pecking, make their life difficult when they have to transfer my efforts to the computer. But, complaints notwithstanding, I was not ready to give that 42-year-old lady up.

Fate, however, has a funny way of playing tricks. For a milestone birthday celebrated a few weeks ago, several nieces and nephews from San Francisco to Madras, knowing that I'd fallen in love with that pug in those delightful TV ads of a couple of years ago, decided to gift me one. But my good lady put her foot down so hard that all telephones over the intervening miles were shocked into silence. After a few weeks, one brave soul tried again with a “What would he like then, that you would approve?” and after a few ‘Nothings' from both of us, it suddenly struck me that something the good lady would approve of was a typewriter to replace Old Faithful that even she was struggling with. But where in the world do you find new manual typewriters these days?

And that's when a Boston niece suggested the good lady look up My Typewriter on the Internet. Look it up she did, and was all smiles when she called out to me to see what she had found. Yes, there in pictures as pretty as they are in real life were both my typewriters, the 50s and the 60s ones. And looking brand new. ‘My Typewriter', I discovered, is a fascinating New York shop operating online that stocks virtually every kind of typewriter from the 1920s, some restored, others redundant stock refurbished, some in mint condition, as well as antique ones. Certainly the one my niece in Boston brought out for me — and made my day — looks in mint condition. What a joy it is to see letters that are crystal clear on the paper! The new member of the family looks identical to the 1960s lady, down to her light aqua colour. The only differences are that the brand reads ‘Olivetti Underwood' instead of ‘Olivetti' — possibly this was a version made by Underwood of the U.S. after Olivetti took it over in 1959 — and the pound sterling and exclamation mark symbols are missing, being replaced by the American symbol for cent and an asterisk, all involving a little repositioning which I will no doubt get used to before long.

With the package came a note from my niece that made my day brighter. After stating that many writers still prefer a typewriter, it tells the story of American author Cormac McCarthy who wrote over five million “fairly renowned” words over nearly 50 years on a Lettera 32 Olivetti he had bought in 1963 for $50. McCarthy, for the record, won the American Book Critics Circle Award for his 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses, had his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men adapted for the 2007 film of the same name that won four Oscars, including Best Picture, and got the Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel The Road.

Now comes the part that had me getting more interested in this narration. Apparently in December last, the typewriter used to type all these books was auctioned for charity by Christie's with a bottom price of $20,000. The price it went for was an unbelievable $254,500! Not long after that, a friend of McCarthy presented him with a replacement, an Olivetti that was the same model, which he had bought for $11! Which is about what my 50s and 60s models would fetch in the state they are in — unless My Typewriter works its magic.

*****

When the postman knocked

* I've managed to move a step further in discovering who Mohideen Sheriff was, thanks to M.S. Sastry again. He tells me that Waring (Miscellany, April 26, 2010) describes him as “Moodeen Sheriff of Triplicane Dispensary”. Now who can tell me something about the Triplicane Dispensary? Surely there must be a descendant of Mohideen Sheriff somewhere out there who could tell us more about him and the dispensary.

Waring's Pharmacopoeia of India, prepared on the instructions of the Secretary of State for India, says in its preface, “Amongst the returns received from India was one from native surgeon Moodeen Sheriff of Madras containing the vernacular names of indigenous plants and drugs, in 12 of the native languages of India, a work of immense labour, reflecting the greatest credit on the intelligence and industry of the compiler. This catalogue having been submitted to eminent Oriental scholars at Home and pronounced generally correct, it was resolved to append it to the Pharmacopoeia. It was accordingly forwarded to Madras for the purpose of being printed under Mr. Moodeen Sheriff's superintendence. Unexpected circumstances, however, having arisen there to delay the publication, it has been deemed advisable, rather than to defer the publication of the work, to issue the catalogue in a separate or supplementary volume.” ‘Cingalese' and Sanskrit lists were added before publication in Madras in 1869.

At the time of publication, Waring's committee recorded “the high sense they entertain of the praiseworthy labours of native surgeon Moodeen Sheriff in preparing the table of upwards of 400 medical plants of India which reflects the highest credit on his industry, intelligence and sound judgment.”

* A. Raman of New South Wales, who as a hobby has been researching Madras medical history, adds a sidebar to the Mohideen Sheriff story. He writes that he knew that the GMVC (Graduate of the Madras Veterinary College) used to be awarded as a degree between 1903 and 1935 but had never heard of the GMMC till I mentioned it, courtesy Sastry, in Miscellany April 26, 2010. But checkingon it he came across a paper by N. Dorairajan et al that appeared in the Indian Journal of Surgery in 2007 titled ‘An ode to my alma mater: Madras Medical College'. In it was this narration: “The school(Medical School in Madras, later the Madras Medical College) began with 10 European medical apprentices and 11 native medical pupils. The teaching staff comprised surgeon D.Mortimer, superintendent, Surgeon George Harding as assistant superintendent along with two Assistant Warrant Officers, Assistant Apothecary D'Beaux and Dresser T. S. Muthuswamy Mudaliar. The Superintendent and his assistants were men of exceptional merit and ability. In 1842, the hospital opened its doors to Indians. In the early part of 1850, the School Council submitted a proposal to the Government to accord this institution the higher designation of ‘College', remarking that this change in designation would lend to its professional status. The Government granted this request and on October 1, 1850, the Madras Medical School became the Madras Medical College. The first batch of students who went through the senior course and successfully passed out in 1852 was granted the Diploma of Graduate of the Madras Medical College. The College continued to award this diploma till 1857 when it became affiliated to the newly formed Madras University, which then commenced to award medical degrees, MBCM, for a course of five years' duration, and LMS (Licentiate in Medicine & Surgery) for a course of three years.