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Updated: July 9, 2011 16:52 IST

When the keys go silent...

  • V. Gangadhar
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The world's last typewriter factory closed down in Mumbai this April. V. Gangadhar pays tribute to the typewriter, his companion throughout his journalistic career.

The media reported the closure of the last typewriter factory in the world, Godrej and Boyce in Shirwal near Pune though it turned out nearly 10,000 machines till 14 months ago. Ask any journalist or typist, he could narrate dozens of stories about his “best professional friend”. That is why it is surprising that not a single village in my home town, Palakkad, named any of its villages after Christopher Scholes, who in 1868, patented the first typewriter. Five years later Remington Arms Co., Pennsylvania, began manufacturing the machine and there was no looking back.

Never ending streams of SSLC passed boys, Ambi, Naanu, Subbudu, Pichandi and the rest of the gang joined Shorthand and Typewriting Institutes, passed their “Lower” and “Higher” examinations and took off to Mumbai. When they returned on leave, they were a changed lot, smoking outside their homes and boasting about making it out with short-skirted girls. The typewriter impact had begun.

A place at home

My life was different because I went to college. But there was a “Royal” brand typewriter at home which my father occasionally used the Biblical system, “Seek and Thou shalt find”! I fiddled with it off and on but my real involvement with typewriters began only with my first job in an Ahmedabad textile mill where the typing pool was full of Palakadu boys. My work in the Purchase Section consisted of writing official letters to various suppliers and soon I found typing easier than writing by hand. The work was cleaner and there was no interruption to the flow of thoughts Thanks to my Typing Pool friends, I came to know a lot about typewriters. We had Remington, Godrej, Halda, Underwood and other brands and each typist had his favourite which he fought to retain. And why not? Ernest Hemingway did most of his work on a “Royal Deluxe” machine, while P.G. Wodehouse relied on a “Monarch” Exceptions to the rule included John Steinbeck, who used lead pencils, 60 a day. When the edges of the hexagonal pencils hurt the fingers he switched over to round-shaped pencils. Steinbeck no doubt won the Literature “Nobel” but did not know what he had missed out on typewriters.

Career-wise, the typewriter was able to take you places. Part of lawyer Perry Mason's successes was his incomparable secretary, Della Street, a first rate typist, her speed at the keyboard matching Mason's swift legal thinking. Snoopy, the wonder dog in the Peanuts comic strip immortalised the famous first lines of his novel when he typed out the lines, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Right from the start

My serious love affair with typewriters began when I became a journalist. At the Times of India training department, I loved using the cute “Hermes” portable model, though the reporting desk had Indian-made office models. But still, living in a world of my own dream, I did not type out stories, I pounded them out imagining I was a tough guy reporter, cigarette dangling from one corner of the mouth, a whiskey and soda held in the hand. James Reston of the New York Times typed out many such stories on earth-shaking events but in my earlier days in the profession, the lead did not go beyond “Two men allegedly found wandering under suspicious circumstances were taken into custody by Matunga police”! Gradually, the typewriter became part of my life. Covering communal riots or natural calamities in various parts of Gujarat, it became a habit to travel from place to place, one hand holding a suitcase, the other my Royal portable, which a friend had repaired and given a new look for Rs. 300. Not an easy job but I was inspired by NYT reporter Tom Wicker who covered the John Kennedy assassination in the same manner — suitcase, portable and running here and there to find a suitable place to type out his story and phone the office.

Turning a freelancer created certain problems. There was no office typewriter. My one attempt to acquire an imported portable machine failed. After finishing an assignment for Reader's Digest, where I was then working, I had some time to spare at the Amsterdam airport. At the duty free shop I bought an “Olivetti” portable, a famous brand and thought my problems were finally over. The machine worked well for three months, then the ribbon began to fade. Trying to replace it with a new ribbon I was told the machine did not use a conventional ribbon but a cartridge. It was my bad luck this particular model was manufactured in Spain and cursing Spanish-Italian collaboration did not help. I had to get back to the Royal which was near its abdication age. Finally, fortune smiled and a friend who was leaving India offered to sell me two portable machines of the Japanese “Brother” brand. I grabbed them and used them till the computer age came along. For over 20 years they served me faithfully and only a month back while shifting homes in Mumbai, I had to sell them off for Rs. 1,200. I felt lost, part of my journalistic career went with them.

No one can deny the advantages of the computer over the mechanical or for that matter, the electrical or electronic typewriter. We had to insert the papers, the carbons (which messed up the hands), get ribbons changed and so on. The process could be messy. Famous American publisher Bennett Cerf mentioned a prolific writer who disliked his wife but would not divorce her because she was the only one who could change the ribbons in his typewriter and also disentangle him from the mess whenever he tried to do it himself. Computers may be more work-friendly and efficient but there was something personal, friendly with the manual typewriter. People became attached to them, occasionally talked to them as I did whenever I needed a catchy lead for my story. The clackety-clack noise of the keys was comforting, and helped to concentrate. Thankfully, even while on the way out from most offices, I see men sitting outside Mumbai's General Post office typing out legal and other documents. Soon they may also become relics.



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