Typewriters, Writing a Social History of Urban India

An excerpt from With Great Truth and Regards, a forthcoming book on the social history of the typewriter.

An excerpt from With Great Truth and Regards, a forthcoming book on the social history of the typewriter.

The typewriter design team at Godrej, 1972. Courtesy: Godrej archives

The typewriter design team at Godrej, 1972. Courtesy: Godrej archives

A history of typewriters is more than a history of machines: it is equally a history of their users and of the world of social activity and cultural association they help bring into being. In the West, typewriters were almost always indoor objects confined to offices and studies. But in India they have long been a part of life on the street. They form part of the wider existence of the Indian street as an outdoor workplace, where things are made, repaired, used, and recycled, where the needs of the public, especially the poorer sections of the public, are commonly met. Pavement typists, whose encampments can still be seen on a number of city streets in India, serve the need, especially of a barely literate public, for typed documents, letters, petitions, and affidavits. In his novel A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry describes typists outside the high court in Bombay in the 1970s sitting “cross-legged in their stalls before majestic Underwoods as though at a shrine, banging out documents for the waiting plaintifs and petitioners”. Indeed an article in the Illustrated Weekly of India on 26 July 1936 complained about the typists who had “planted themselves on the pavement” outside Bombay’s General Post Office, obstructing passers-by. The typists were said not only to sleep on the street next to their machines but to have had their mail delivered to them there as well.

Perched on stools or sheltered in wayside booths, typists became part of the sociability of the street that grew around pavement vendors and their machines – as the typists’ clients and friends sat around waiting for their documents to be typed, or simply to smoke, gossip and drink tea. And, though the novelty of the typewriter has long since disappeared, its appearance and use on the street was initially one of the ways in which the machine announced itself to the public. The typists became like tailors with their sewing machines, part of the familiar skills of everyday life, skills that were more likely to be transmitted by seeing and observing than through any formal process of instruction.

At a typewriter plant. Courtesy: Godrej archives

At a typewriter plant. Courtesy: Godrej archives

Typewriter and the Modern Office

But, of course, the typewriter was historically more at home in the office than in the street. In the United States, in Britain and elsewhere in the western world typewriters revolutionised office life in the late nineteenth century, and they surely did so in India as well, albeit at a slightly later date. However, in India, the nature and impact of these changes has, hitherto, been poorly documented. Histories of business houses tend to pass over its arrival all too briefly, saying unhelpfully:
“The revolutionary effects of this apparatus on office routines need no description or comment”, though it is sometimes noted that, like the motorcar and electric lighting, the coming of the typewriter signalled the “advent of a new era”. Within the office environment, typewriters did not exist in technological isolation but were part of a whole range of new machines – stenographs, telephones, electric fans, duplicators, calculators – that transformed India’s bureaucratic work-regime and called for new techno-logical and clerical skills. Where writers and clerks had once sat on tall stools and leant against high sloping desks to do their work, pen in hand, now they sat behind machines working at a horizontal desk. Just as bicycles and rickshaws ousted palanquins from city streets and electric fans replaced punkahs, so the typewriter brushed aside many of the traditional instruments and skills of the Indian scribe. While some of India’s old service communities adapted to the needs of the typewriter age, an opportunity was created for new castes and communities, and for women as well as men, to enter the office workplace.

In India, perhaps to a greater degree than in the West, at least until the 1920s, government employment of typists was much greater than that
in the private sector – typewriters became an integral part of the growing mechanisation of the late-colonial state and typewriter companies looked to government departments as their main source of custom for the sale of new machines and the maintenance of old ones. In 1904, the Bombay Typewriter Company included as part of its letter-head a list of its current clients: apart from the “native nobility” and a few business houses, this included a large number of government departments – from the Government of India itself, through various revenue, public works and engineering departments, down to provincial high courts and sanitary officers. Law courts throughout India were among the first state institutions to be supplied with typists and typewriters. And before 1914, government files were filled with memoranda as to who could be officially provided with a typewriter and at what cost, or which commercial agency should be given the contract for office supplies and typewriter repair-work. Special government undertakings – such as the decennial censuses or periodic commissions and committees of enquiry – generated fresh demands for typewriters and typists. The state’s engagement with modern technology was thus not con ned to the kinds of big technologies about which historians have conventionally written (the railway, telegraph, and modern weaponry), but also extended to small machines like typewriters and seemingly petty matters like the supply of typewriter ribbons.

Typewriters became part of the visual identity of the modern state, part of the everyday life of the everyday state. They came to symbolize the normality, even the stubborn persistence in the face of adversity, of the bureaucratic machine and its work regimes. When the devastating earthquake struck Bihar in 1934, one young British engineer was reassured of returning normality by the sight of a government clerk at work in the town of Muzaffarpur, though now in the street outside his wrecked office, “drumming on his typewriter in the full public gaze”. Conversely, while in August 1947 the Government of India in New Delhi inherited a well-established bureaucracy in which the typewriter was a routine tool of work, the hastily convened o ces of the Government of Pakistan in Karachi were desperately short of typewriters and almost every other standard item of office equipment.

Government offices were not, however, the only place where typewriters found a home. Commercial firms and private employers also adopted the typewriter, and the growing need for skilled typists can be seen in the “wanted” columns of the daily newspapers of the time. In January 1922, for instance, advertisers in the “Situations Vacant” columns of the Statesman in Calcutta sought, amongst others, an experienced male typist for a European firm at Mirzapur, a shorthand typist for a tea estate in Assam, and a “competent lady shorthand typist” for a newspaper office in central Calcutta (“Must be quick and accurate, with genuine experience of office routine”). Berry & Co. sought an experienced typist, offering a “Good salary to a fast and accurate man”. While among those offering their services were: a Madrasi with three years’ typing experience, a young woman typist who had previously worked for a European firm, and an “Experienced Lady” in Bareilly who sought employment as a shorthand typist working from home.

David Arnold is a historian of India and professor emeritus at the University of Warwick

Excerpted from With Great Truth and Regards, a forthcoming book on the social history of the typewriter, edited by Sidharth Bhatia and published by Godrej.