Sunday, 8 January 2017

With Great Truth & Regard: The Story of the Typewriter in India, 2016


I wrote my first story on a Godrej typewriter. It was an interview with former playback singer Preeti Sagar. The Q&A appeared in Free Press Bulletin shortly after I joined the tabloid as a reporter in the mid-eighties. Until then, I had only been editing stories on India’s first homegrown typewriter, which, in many offices, occupied a large portion of a Godrej horizontal desk and sat next to a Godrej vertical cabinet. In those days, Godrej was synonymous with office furniture.

Long before that, I cut my teeth on portable typewriters. I learnt to change the ribbon and roll foolscap paper on Brother, Smith Carona and Remington that my father and uncle owned. Both were journalists and between them they had a top speed of nearly 200 words per minute. Cigarette between lips, they pounded away at their portables and delivered clean copies for the next day’s edition. You could hear them speed typing in the newsroom from quite a distance. It was, no doubt, music to the ears of editors with stubborn deadlines.

A year before I took up my first newspaper job at Free Press Journal Group, I enrolled into a typing and shorthand institute where I learnt the rudiments of ten-finger typing on Godrej machines, beginning with the home or middle row—‘asdf’ with the left hand followed by ‘;lkj’ with the right. I found it tedious. A month later, I was back to rapid two-finger typing. It was an insult to the typewriter. But that’s how I type to this day.



And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of memories that came back after I read With Great Truth & Regard: The Story of the Typewriter in India edited by senior journalist and author Sidharth Bhatia. It resonated with me because of my experience with this unwieldy machine that made writers and letter writers out of so many of us. The 304-page well-illustrated hardback chronicles the long and rich anecdotal history of the manual typewriter, from the time industrialist Naval Godrej pioneered the first all-Indian typewriter in 1955 to its inevitable death by computers in 2011. The company stopped production that year, though you can still find old working typewriters outside courts, at street corners, and in small towns.

As Jamshyd N. Godrej, son of Naval Godrej and CMD of Godrej & Boyce, notes in his Foreword, “The book captures the story of typewriters in India from many perspectives, including the socio-economic perspective, which is about the impact typewriters had on the Indian masses. It is also about the contribution typewriters made to bring women into offices in larger numbers—a huge step forward for their empowerment in India.”

The Godrej typewriter, a complex machine with 2,000 high-precision components, was one of post-Independent India’s earliest instances of self-reliance in manufacturing. It was testimony to a young nation’s capability to mass-produce an indigenous typewriter and take on established foreign brands like Remington, Underwood, and Imperial. And it came 60 years before the government launched its ‘Make in India’ initiative.



“The story of the Indian typewriter is more than just a matter of manufacturing a piece of office equipment; it is the story of one man's dogged determination to make a machine that would compete against the world's best. And most of all, it is part of India's own goal of becoming self-reliant,” Bhatia writes in his engaging piece titled Making the Indian Typewriter: The Godrej Story.

In many ways, the history of the typewriter is also the history of the typist.

An entire generation of people across cultures and communities—from the office stenographer to the court typist and from the public librarian to the newspaper editor—broke their backs and built their careers on the typewriter. There was no social barrier to using the machine. The typewriter was an equaliser. It defined the Indian workplace more than any other office device. In nearly every commercial enterprise or government office someone or other hunched over a typewriter, either typing from a handwritten document at the side, winding a new spool and occasionally making a mess of it, or rubbing out lines with a circular ink eraser and tearing a hole through the paper. It was both frustrating and satisfying.

The typewriter sat on the office desk or a roadside table with a degree of self-importance. Over tea and gossip, it did many things at once—it told stories, dictated letters, made rules, typed affidavits, hired people, balanced accounts, prepared invoices, and wrote out inventories. It was also privy to all kinds of information, including secrets and lies. If the typewriter could talk, I suspect, it would have strained ties and damaged relations among peoples and societies. But noisy as it was, the typewriter remained a mute spectator throughout its eventful existence.



With Great Truth & Regard is a nostalgic throwback to a time when typewriters influenced and shaped ordinary lives. It is an evocative collection of memories, essays, observations, short accounts, and titbits about a 20th century innovation that users took for granted. No one really expected the typewriter to all but vanish. After all, it had achieved so much in the sphere of communication, employment, socio-cultural diversity, including film and television, and women emancipation.   

Launched on December 2, 2016—to commemorate the birth centenary of Naval Godrej (1916-2016)—the volume contains personal narratives by eminent Indian writers, historians, journalists, and social commentators. It is not just a tribute to Godrej typewriters but a testimonial to all typewriters in India. Some of the chapters that I particularly enjoyed were The Rise of the Indian Typewriter, South India's Relationship with Typing, The World of Steno Stereotypes, The Shift from Typewriters to Computers in Journalism, Writing the Script of Life: The Typewriter in Hindi Cinema, and The Immortal Typewriter. It is further enriched by dozens of photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhuri. The vintage illustrations and advertisements of typewriters tell their own story.

If you worked on typewriters, then this book will take you down memory lane. And if you did not, you can still enjoy reading about one of the great utilitarian devices of the 20th century and see what you missed. At 300-plus pages, I felt the book was a tad long but I suppose that bit can be overlooked given the fond memories the typewriter evokes.

Now, the "Backspace" has long replaced the "xxxx" but I would like to think that a part of the manual typewriter still lives on in the keyboards we use today. 


Recommended. 

Title: Great Truth & Regard: The Story of the Typewriter in India
Year: 2016
Editor: Sidharth Bhatia
Pages: 304
Publisher: Godrej
Distributor: Roli Books, India






Note: All images are sourced from the book.


20 comments:

  1. There was a public radio report about the last professional typewriters in one or another nation...damned if I can remember which...but one where photocopiers or computers were for some time looked at suspiciously due to recent dictators...hm. Shall see if I can dig that out...

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    1. That sounds interesting, Todd. I worked with editors who were, rightly, possessive about their portable typewriters.

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  2. I learned to type on an Underwood and a Royal in high school in the late 1940's. Curiously, in the journalism class there were no typewriters during the same years. It was taught with pen and ink or pencil as we pout out the high school newspaper. The articles were taken to the town's newspaper and they published the paper. Your post on the story of the Indian typewriter brought back many memories. Thanks for posting this interesting article, Prashant.

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    1. You're welcome, Oscar, and thank you for the appreciation. My journalism class in 1986 didn't have typewriters either. Many 20th century gadgets and devices bring back memories for those who have used them. I was raised among typewriters though I don't remember using an Underwood or a Royal. Brother and Remington were popular among journalists though the Made-in-India portable Remington I had was not user friendly. I had to pound the keys hard to type. Those were interesting times, though.

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  3. I wrote my first book on a typewriter, my first poems, my first fumbled attempts at stories. What an amazing invention it was

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    1. Charles, my dad wrote several short stories on his portable Smith Carona that I hope to try and publish. It was a fine invention, I agree.

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  4. Prashant – Thanks for the post and for taking me back to the good-old/bad-old days. Even though most newspapers had gone to computers, my first paper was still using typewriters. So, I arrived in the last days of the noisy, clacking newsrooms.

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    1. You're welcome, Elgin. As a kid I used to play on my dad's portable Smith Carona, at times without a paper which annoyed him. I never used an electronic typewriter which was around for only a few years.

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  5. How absolutely fascinating, Prashant! I especially like that the story is told within this cultural context. And, really, if you think about it, that's what all stories are, anyway, aren't they? It puts me just a little in mind of my own keyboarding history. The first typewriter I ever used was a manual typewriter, too.

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    1. Thank you, Margot. I'd love to read about your experience with typewriters. It's wonderful that these complex machines inspired so many writers who went on to become such prolific authors.

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  6. I love books about shared cultural spaces. Thanks for posting about this, Prashant. I'll definitely look out for this book. 2017 Mubarak.

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    1. Happy New Year, Neer! The typewriter has a rich and diverse culture given that so many different societies and communities used it.

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  7. Enjoyed this, Prashant. The late Andy Rooney would loved it, too. And it's good to have you back on FFB!

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    1. Thank you, Mathew. I wasn't familiar with Andy Rooney until you mentioned him and then I read about the radio and television writer and his weekly broadcast. I do want to get back on FFB with some meaningful reviews of crime and detective fiction.

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  8. I would enjoy those essays, Prashant. Typing was the only class in high school that I had a hard time with ... I learned the keys but I could not handle speed or accuracy. I can't imagine typing at 200 words a minute.

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    1. Tracy, shorthand and typing institutes were popular across India from the sixties, at least, through the mid-eighties. I opted out of the class within a month. Now I type just as well with my index fingers. Actually, 200 words per minute was the collective typing speed of my dad and his brother.

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  9. This sounds absolutely fascinating, Prashant. It doesn't appear to be easily available here in the U.S., but I'll search it out if possible. A wonderful review! Thank you!

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    1. Thank you, Richard. It is a fascinating history of typewriters in India. Some of the essays, including those by senior journalists and columnists, are really well-written. The book is available on Amazon, linked alongside the cover above.

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  10. Count me in with the oldies who started their careers on old-style manual typewriters. They were satisfying to touch and feel and use - but give me the word-processing chance to correct mistakes any day!

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    1. Moira, I'm glad I started using typewriters at a very young age for I was already comfortable using them in my first job. Most of my colleagues in their twenties and thirties have never seen, or worked on, typewriters.

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