Chennai: There can be no back-benchers inS. Parasuraman’s shorthand class. The classroom, on the first floor of the Stenographers’ Guild building, can hold perhaps 50 students, but on this evening there are only five in attendance, all clustered around their teacher at the front. A single tube light drowns them in electric blue.
Parasuraman is conducting what, in the shorthand of shorthand, is known as “speed”—a rapid dictation exercise. “Friends, we are meeting here today”, he reads from a May 1984 government technical exam paper, “to discuss the food situation”. Parasuraman is a benign dictator, soft-spoken and unhurried, but his rhythm is precise, doling out a roughly fixed number of words per minute. His audience scribbles along, setting down the dots and curves, resembling a sort of stunted Arabic script, that form the basis of Pitman shorthand.
Of these students, S. Raja is perhaps the most unusual. His classmates are here because they already have jobs that require shorthand, and because improving their skills can improve their prospects. Vimal Singh, now a Madras high court clerk, can become a judge’s assistant if he passes his “higher” grade exam, for instance; in the same way, I. Thangaswamy can convert his temporary position, at the Directorate of Collegiate Education, into a permanent one.
Raja—rail-thin, eager, and addicted to his mobile phone—is only in class XII, but he’s opted to learn shorthand ahead of other, more common vocations. “I think this can get me a government job, and that’s what I want,” Raja says. “Not that I don’t want to study computers—but between school and shorthand, there’s really no time.”
When the guild was first formed—its foundation stone laid by C. Rajagopalachari—Raja would have been the rule rather than the aberration. In August 1937, speech was far more ephemeral: there were no dictaphones or computers, and correspondence was as often dictated to secretaries as it was written out in longhand. The guild’s original beneficiaries, says its young treasurer S.R. Sivasubramanian, were journalists, who had to note down verbatim the orations delivered by public eminences.
For such tasks, shorthand—and particularly Isaac Pitman’s easily understood, phonetic shorthand, invented in 1837—was a blessing. (A foot-high bronze statue of Pitman still stands on a plinth outside the guild’s door; it is garlanded on auspicious days.) Now, however, Pitman’s squiggles appear almost anachronistic. Companies no longer seek stenographers for their staff, and even in shorthand’s grand temple—Parliament—positions for house reporters are going unfilled.
In his late 70s, E. Krishnamurthy is very much the guild’s equivalent of P. G. Wodehouse’s Oldest Member: He is a near-permanent fixture on its premises, and the slightest prod can wring a guild yarn of utmost deliciousness. “When I joined the guild, in 1964, this building was just two rooms, separated by a wooden screen,” Krishnamurthy says. “Then a two-storey structure came up, and each floor held 200 students at a time, and they all wanted to study shorthand.”
Krishnamurthy, who once jotted down a blazing 200 words per minute, started work at Siemens as a stenographer in the mid-1960s and retired in the early 1990s. Even around the time of Krishnamurthy’s retirement, Sivasubramanian says, some residual demand for shorthand existed. “We’d have a 600-page employment register, where job prospects were written down, and even in the late 1980s, these would get filled in 10-15 days,” he says. “Now on a good day, I get maybe two or three calls asking for stenos.”
This malnourished demand for stenography has, naturally, weakened supply as well. Only one out of every five students at the guild now signs up for shorthand courses; the other four choose typing or—most commonly— basic computer applications. “When I was studying shorthand in 1998, 75 people from the guild alone wrote the higher-grade exam,” says Sivasubramanian, and a small sigh whistles out of him before he goes on. “Now I doubt there would even be that many taking the exam all across the state.”
Private sector demand for stenographers—or even for secretaries with shorthand skills—has winked out of life. “Even in 1993 or 1994, when I was a recruiter on the ground, I’d get some enquiries, every now and then, for stenographers,” recalls E. Balaji, president and director of Ma Foi Randstad, a human resources firm. “After 1995, I don’t remember any enquiries at all. In fact, I don’t remember when we were last asked for shorthand even as a supplementary skill, let alone a stand-alone one. The concept of giving dictation has died. With computers, most people just prefer to draft their emails themselves.”
For the guild’s shorthand students, therefore, the two largest employers prove to be the government and the courts, but even here, recruiting has been lethargic. One Lok Sabha official, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t allowed to speak to the media, revealed that of the 68 positions sanctioned to transcribe Lok Sabha and parliamentary committee proceedings, 24 are vacant. “And really, we need 80,” he says. “It’s like a cricket team. If in the 11, two players are injured, how can you play the game?”
For these reporters, the work is arduous. A pair of English and Hindi stenographers transcribes speeches for five minutes at a time, before rotating into another location on Parliament’s premises, where a sub-committee may be meeting or a Lok Sabha session may be under way. “We’re constantly rushing, from one place to the other,” one veteran reporter says.
After 90-odd minutes spent circulating through sessions, reporters tear up to their third-floor office to type up their shorthand notes; then they dive back into rotations. The pace can be hectic. There are as many as 60-65 parliamentary committees, the official notes, and as many as 10 of them may be meeting at the same time. Their transcripts need to be ready within 12-14 hours. Lok Sabha’s own reports—with its honourable members frequently yelling, in confused parallel and in multiple languages—need to be ready by 10pm the same day.
This imbalance between the volume of work and the number of able hands has even had, on one occasion, a tragic consequence. In August, a 54-year-old reporter had to be summoned from his sickbed during a particularly busy time for his department. He died the next day—weakened considerably, the Lok Sabha official says with acute regret, by his exertions at work.
A statistical analysis performed in the Lok Sabha revealed that its members speak “at speeds ranging between 120 and 150 words per minute, some of them go up to 180 words per minute and a few reach the speed of 180 to 200 words per minute.” House reporters were thus required to transcribe 180 words per minute—until eight years ago, when such adept stenographers could simply not be found, and that stipulation was dropped to 160 words per minute.
“Now even that’s becoming impossible,” the Lok Sabha official says. “When we last recruited, we could find only one chap who passed the 160 mark.”
The position of the reporter, the official points out, is crucial for the mechanics of democracy. Yet, because there are so few shorthand students out there, and because promotional avenues for house reporters are often narrow and always dead ends, vacancies persist in going unstaffed. “I know one reporter who joined here, worked for a year or two, and then quit to rejoin as a personal assistant at a lower salary, just because he thought there was no future here,” he says. “I’m afraid that, with more reporters retiring over the next couple of years, this department will just start to become extinct.”