Imagine a bearded, bespectacled hipster, sitting in a cafe, concentrating furiously as he pecks away at a typewriter, while a soy milk latte waits patiently for his attention. Yes, a typewriter. Because a laptop is too mainstream.
Worldwide, the vintage/retro/hipster movement has given a new lease of life to this almost obsolete piece of technology. Its cool quotient has shot through the roof over the past few years: dusty typewriters have been restored and put up for sale (at a hefty price, of course) on e-commerce sites.
Closer home, thoughts of typewriters make people wax eloquent about learning to type, getting inky fingers while changing ribbons and guarding precious carbon paper for multiple uses. R. Sivakumar, who taught typewriting and shorthand at the Saraswathi School of Commerce in Abhiramapuram between 1975 and 1980, says, “It was very exciting, and essential to know typewriting. One of my fondest memories was when I clocked 80 words per minute (which was the all-India second place) in a speed test conducted for the launch of the Godrej Prima typewriter.”
G. Balaji Singh recalls a time when his father’s Union Typewriting Institute in Triplicane had over 200 students at any given point of time. “He started the institute in 1942; I joined him in the 1960s. Even when computers started entering the market in the late 1980s, we had employed someone to teach electronic typing,” he says.
Slowly, numbers started dropping for several reasons. Computers were vilified for this, but another major factor was that many Government jobs (where a typing proficiency certificate is necessary) no longer seemed lucrative. The quick and big bucks were in private jobs, and for that, you just needed to find your way around a keyboard fast enough. Accuracy was no longer an issue, thanks to spell-check.
The world’s last typewriter manufacturing unit, Godrej & Boyce, ended production in 2011, when they had only a few hundred left in stock. Commerce institutes shut shop due to inadequate number of students or shifted to teaching MS Office and desktop publishing skills. It seemed like the practical uses for the writing machine were done.
But skip to 7 a.m. on Wednesday this week, and the quiet of a Purasaiwalkam bylane is punctuated by the distinct sound of typewriter keys. At Sri Bhavani Commercial Institute, N. Mohan supervises his morning batch of students, as they churn out sheet after sheet of English and Tamil type.
When asked why she’s taking up this class, and attempting the exam in August, one of the students says, “There’s a vacancy in a Government college, and I’m required to pass the Government Technical Examination to be eligible for the post.”
Mohan, who is the president of the Chennai District Commerce Institutes Association, explains that in the wake of the 2008 recession, many people craved the stability of a Government job. “There are several hundred vacancies for stenographers, office secretaries, court reporters and the like. That’s why we have seen a huge upturn in the number of people who are taking the exam. In the typewriter’s heyday, in Tamil Nadu alone, close to two lakh applicants used to take the exam. At one point, the numbers fell to 20,000. But this year, 98,000 people will be taking the tests for typewriting, shorthand and accountancy.”
He adds that the number of institutes may have dwindled, but many are flourishing in the city outskirts.
“That’s mainly due to real estate issues. It’s easier to set up an institute on the verandah or terrace of a house there. We don’t have that luxury of space in the city. But we have students who want to come in and learn, so some places even have a waiting list,” says Mohan.
What might present a problem is that the number of working typewriters is going down, and the demand is not enough to warrant the supply. “We have spoken to the manufacturers; they have promised to get the machines for us if we show them the requirement for 10,000 units. It’s not far off,” says Mohan with a smile, as he turns back to check on his students’ work.