Beads of perspiration streaming down his forehead, Shibshankar Saha bangs on the keys of his trusted Remington typewriter as he races to finish an application for a licence for a snack bar. “It’s been a good day, I have earned a hundred rupees,” says Saha, handing over, with a flourish, the application and its carbon copy to the licence-seeker.
Saha, who claims to have been a state junior volleyball player before he turned professional typist, sits on the footpath opposite Lalbazar, Kolkata’s police headquarters, waiting for customers. “At one time there were more than a hundred of us here, but the numbers are dwindling and there are barely 40-50 now,” he says.
Time warp: (clockwise from above) Typists on a pavement at Lalbazar; a vintage typewriter at the Suffee Commercial College; a class in progress at the college. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Typists like him can be found all over the city, perched on rickety chairs and tables along busy streets and lanes, armed with ancient Remington or Godrej machines, typing out anything from biodatas to job applications, bills to annual reports. But they are concentrated mostly in the central business district of BBD Bag (named after the revolutionary trio of Benoy Bose, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta).
“We have been around since the days of the Raj, when Calcutta was the capital of India and thousands of people poured in every day from the hinterlands with applications or petitions addressed to the government offices,” says Pratim Mukherjee, a 75-year-old veteran at Lalbazar. After independence too, and till the early 1980s, they were in demand. But with computers now the norm, business has dwindled and they spend their days reading regional dailies, oiling and re-oiling their machines or simply indulging in that favourite Bengali pastime—adda (spirited discussions about anything and everything under the sun). It appears to be the end of the road for them.
If Naru Haldar, who sits opposite Saha on Lalbazar Street and doesn’t have the luxury of a shop portico to sit under, is to be believed, their monthly income rarely exceeds Rs3,000. “Those who have rented typewriters have to pay Rs200-300, depending on the make, and then there’s the police to be paid off,” says Haldar, who has had to make a run for it with his machine on a number of occasions when the police decided to swoop down on the typists occupying the pavement.
While those who sit in the business district and near the courts are comparatively better off, the typists who ply their trade in neighbourhoods such as the Shyambazar crossing, under the watchful eyes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose astride a stallion, are finding it difficult to make ends meet. “Typists working in a bureau don’t have to worry about the space or the machines but, in turn, have to part with almost 50% of their meagre earnings,” says Sushil Das, who works in a bureau.
Some of the typists have learnt electronic typing and desktop publishing (DTP) but they, too, aren’t well off. “Today, everyone has a computer or goes to the neighbourhood cybercafé,” says Kanai Addya, interrupting an animated discussion on global warming in his cubbyhole bureau office near the Calcutta high court. “For DTP, you need space; you can’t plonk a computer on a footpath. And for that you need money,” he says, eager to get on with the debate. The bureau he works for is deserted, its workstations and printers look forlorn.
Yet, despite the dismal situation, there are those who are betting on their typing and shorthand skills to get them clerical jobs in government. “The government still hires typists, I am told, or at least keyboard specialists, and hence I am here,” says Sanjoy Seth, a commerce graduate. The 32-year-old, still dependent on his family, is among a class of 40-odd scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students who’ve been sponsored by the state government’s labour department to undergo training in typing and shorthand at Suffee college, one of the city’s last remaining “commercial colleges”.
These colleges used to teach “commercial” skills such as typing, shorthand (Pitman’s and Sloan-Duployan, among others), double-entry bookkeeping, secretarial practice and so on. But almost all these skills are redundant now, and the colleges themselves are floundering, with 75-year-old Suffee managing to stay afloat because of a slew of new-age computer, management and spoken English courses introduced by Mohammed Qamar Hamid, the director and principal.
“These boys and girls are sent by the employment exchange at Purta Bhavan in Salt Lake to us for training in typing and shorthand,” says Hamid. “Not only do they not have to pay any tuition fees or for the books and material they get, but the government also pays them a stipend of Rs175 per month.” The students themselves are hopeful of landing secure jobs with the government some day.
Hamid, whose college was once the assembly line that churned out super-efficient Anglo-Indian women secretaries who excelled at stenography and typing, says the age of the typist is truly over.
As Saha says, before heading off to catch a bus home, “You may not find us here if you come back again next year.”