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Courts, the last bastion of the good ol’ typewriter

Subramaniam is one among the 200-odd typists who have been churning out
instant documents at the Madras High Court campus, for decades together
Chennai: Call it ‘mechanical’ dispensation of justice if you may, but the humble typewriter, a device of the last century perceived to have gone extinct in recent times, is vital to the functioning of the litany of the city’s courts. In fact, the clang of the typewriter is an indicator that most of its needs, especially those relating to documentation, are being served.

Want to get an affidavit typed or a statement composed in a jiffy? A large number of typists here would do it, with devices that are at the minimum 15-20 years old. Talk about giving a touch of antiquity to your work.

The Law-Chamber of the Madras High Court is one such place that has an intrinsic link with the typewriter. Abuzz with activity right through the day, its expansive corridors over its three floors accommodate no less than 60-odd ‘verandah’ (due to the place they occupy) typists. These persons in addition to typing and composing for the advocates who share the premises with them, also do it for the litigants who come here, day-in day-out.

True, the typewriter may have waged a losing war for relevance in various sectors against Charles Babbage’s little invention, the computer, but here people are inclined towards the former for reasons more than one. Subramaniam, a senior typist who has put in over 25 years of service, puts things in perspective: “A majority of the people who come to us are those with documents in illegible handwriting that are to be presented in courts. We analyse them and compose it in a manner that is acceptable to the courts, which those with computers refuse to do.”

Also, lawyers or litigants needing documents in a jiffy seek refuge in the typists. “Sometimes a situation may arise in a court case where a litigant has presented a new object, which needs a countering representation. Such people rush out of the court-rooms, come to us and dictate the content; the typing is done verbatim.” He adds that they could go in search of computers, but that would consume large amount of time.
These typewriters -- which are at the minimum 15-20 years old --
can easily send many persons down memory lane

The traditional favourite machines are Godrej and Remington, which are in wide use here. Then there are the little-known companies, such as Halda or Facit, whose products are used in lesser proportions. Snehalatha, who has been a typist since 1987 at the High Court, says that she refused to learn computer data text processing, even after attending coaching classes. “I’ve felt that they were loading too much into my head; nothing gives me happiness than getting a feel of the keys of the typewriter,” she sums up her sentiments.

That ‘feel’, however, comes with considerable amount of expense. The machine needs maintenance every two months or so, else the keys lose their flexibility. Enter the typewriter “mechanics”, who form an eco-system with the typists and help them keep their machines in perfect order. And then there is the expense due to the parts that are consumed the most: paper, epecially green paper, and ink-ribbons.

S Rajeshwari, who has been around for over 15 years, adds that asking the mechanic to examine the typewriter is a ritual for every typewriter. She has a ready “quick-fix” kit with her, in her table comprising brushes to clear dust of the keys and the ribbon. On an average a spool of ink-ribbons, costing Rs60-75, would last 15 days.

The last typewriter manufacturing company in India may have downed its shutters in 2011, but it isn’t exactly that spares have been hard to come by. Hotspots for typewriter spares include the Moore Market and Armenian Street, says secretary of the Madras High Court Advocates’ Typists’ Welfare Association, Singaram.

Singaram estimates the average age of the typewriters used here at 15-20 years. There are many machines in use for more than 35 years, too. The secret for the longevity of the machines: proper and prompt servicing."Once we notice something amiss, we get it rectified immediately."
Till technology undo us apart...
Technological changes, however, have been slow but perceptible. Rajeshwari says that allocation has been made for computer terminals at the recently constructed building. The new-generation advocates bring along their PDAs, depending on portable disk drives and printers for their material. All this has, of late, resulted in reduced dependency on the typists.

Despite this, one reason seems to be spurring the tribe of 200-odd typists in the Madras High Court campus. “We have a loyal section of customers, mostly senior advocates, who prefer their documents only typewritten. We feel obliged to service their needs,” adds Singaram.

(Pictures by Shiba Prasad Sahu, chief photographer, The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Appeared in
City Express, the daily supplement of The New Indian Express, on November 9, 2013

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