The Time Machine

By: | Published: May 3, 2015 12:00 AM

The instrument, which the current generation may have seen only on the silver screen, used to be the lifeline of offices in India at least two generations ago.

Once upom a time in India, people were allowed to smoke in offices. It was the era in which bell-bottoms and tweed jackets were a fad. An era in which Fiats and Ambassadors were the cars people drove and the presence of wood-panelled walls, light green or orange angular sofas and small Godrej almirahs signified a posh workplace. The offices of those times smelled of acetone and had people hustling and bustling all day with a characteristic ‘clickety-clack’ sound going on in the background—it was the era of the typewriter.

The instrument, which the current generation may have seen only on the silver screen, used to be the lifeline of offices in India at least two generations ago. It even played a crucial role in aiding the romance in Guru Dutt’s 1955 film Mr and Mrs ’55. Replaced by desktops, laptops, tablets and even smartphones, typewriters, which conjure a sense of nostalgia from a time when ‘spell-check’ was not an option, have long been perceived as extinct. However, the machine survives in the nooks and corners of metropolitan India and, even today, almost every city in the country has small shops tucked away in some corner or the other dedicated to repairing and fixing the old instrument.

One such repairman, 55-year-old Rajendar Kumar, sits on a stool outside his shop everyday across PVR Plaza in Connaught Place, New Delhi, chatting with friends. Kumar has been in the business of repairing age-old typewriters since he was seven years old. From outside, Kumar’s Adarsh Typewriters is like any other repair shop, refilling cartridges, fixing watches, lighters and so on. But once you step inside, you find that the murky interiors of the shop hold great treasures such as a 60-year-old Olivetti typewriter. “This particular piece would cost R11,000 today and the price will only keep on increasing over the years,” says Kumar, pointing at the machine.

Kumar, a third-generation repairman of typewriters—and the last of his kin to be repairing them at his shop—says repairing one takes him over a week. His grandfather moved from Jaipur to work in New Delhi and began repairing typewriters for a living. Kumar’s father, Kishen Chand, followed in his footsteps. “My daughter is a lawyer and my son works with the media,” Kumar says. “They keep telling me to quit this obsession, but they don’t understand that it is much more than just an obsession.”

Another repairman, 53-year-old OP Sharma, operates out of the Chawri Bazar area of Delhi. “I recently chanced upon a typewriter with a kabadiwala near Jama Masjid and bought it for a mere R100,” he says, adding gleefully, “Now, I am going to make it look like new.” Though the make of Sharma’s find can’t be ascertained—most of its keys and body parts are rusted and broken—that doesn’t deter him from repairing it. Explaining that it will take him less than 10 days’ time to repair the machine, Sharma, over a cup of masala chai, says, “I will first dip this into mitti ka tel (kerosene) and then leave it for over two days. Then I will make the missing parts myself and make them look just like the original ones.”

Prajay Pandit’s typewriter shop in Kolkata’s Burrabazar is one of a kind with stacks of old typewriters, display cases of ribbons and boxes of parts for mainline office typewriters of the days before computer screens took over. His inventory of manual typewriters—the shop has about 400—includes Underwoods, Coronas, Remingtons and Woodstocks. Pandit says many of the electric models are kept for their parts. “You scavenge or make new parts yourself,” he explains.

The charge for repairing typewriters is different at different shops. But, on an average, servicing costs around R500, while restoration costs between R1,500-R3,000, depending upon the make and model. In case a few parts are missing, add another R1,500 to the bill.

The durable and humble machine is now also gaining a small but devoted following with the smartphone set. Kartik Bedi is the owner of Bedi Typewriter Works, one of the few local shops that fix and sell typewriters in the financial capital of the country. The 71-year-old and his assistant, Charlie, deal mostly in repairing electric typewriters at law firms, real estate offices and a few other businesses that still need to fill out official documents with hard type. However, once or twice a week, a young person walks into their shop, looking for a typewriter with real keys to pound on—preferably something in black—maybe as an antidote to the addictive glow of tiny screens, and this inspires Bedi to keep going. “It feels great to be needed,” he says. “Kids these days are turning to, and enjoying, these machines everybody was getting rid of 15 years ago. If there was no appreciation for these machines, we would have shut shop. It gives us a real lift.”

Bedi even writes letters on a bright-orange Smith Corona Ghia portable tyewriter “with beautiful black racing stripes down the sides”. “We all need our phones. There is no turning back on that,” he says. “But I love typing a letter that I can see and hold. It is so permanent. You have to think about what you’re going to say and you have to hit the keys with real purpose,” he says, adding. “People in their 20s and 30s these days like vintage things like Polaroids, old electric fans and typewriters.”

In the past, publications such as The New York Times have written stories about small groups of young people meeting for ‘type-ins’ at taverns, bookstores and coffee shops around the world. And on August 3, 2013, The Times published an essay by actor Tom Hanks, who said he uses an old manual typewriter for his personal communications. “Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap… like knitting needles creating a pair of socks,” Hanks wrote. “Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions…”

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