Typewriters, Writing a Social History of Urban India

Here is an  excerpt from With Great Truth and Regards, a forthcoming book on the social history of the typewriter. It is edited by Sidharth Bhatia and published by Godrej.

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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: