Who would have thought that a book about the typewriter, and almost as heavy as it too, would be unputdownable? Barely a few pages into the first essay written by David Arnold, professor emeritus at the University of Warwick, and author of Everyday Technology: Machines And The Making Of India’s Modernity, we come across a 100-year-old case of trolling—an anonymous individual had been sending “slanderous and indecent messages typed on postcards to high-ranking officials, even to the Viceroy and the King-Emperor". It was a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes, writes Arnold, and the Bombay CID cracked it by discovering the distinctive signature of a broken letter on the typewriter used (in case you’re wondering how this ended, the troll committed suicide before the police could catch him).

Edited by Sidharth Bhatia and brought out by Godrej, the first Indian typewriter manufacturer which stopped production of these machines in 2011, With Great Truth And Regard: The Story Of The Typewriter In India contains essays, stories of individuals who have had long associations with the machine, photo features, images from the Godrej archives, as well as advertisements.

With Great Truth And Regard—The Story Of The Typewriter In India: Roli Books, 304 pages, Rs2,500.
With Great Truth And Regard—The Story Of The Typewriter In India: Roli Books, 304 pages, Rs2,500.

Each essay offers a different perspective on the machine—Arnold’s essay remarks on the proliferation of typewriting and stenography schools across the country. Between 1910 and 1950, he calculates, India imported half a million machines, based on official trade statistics. The number would be higher if one took personal portable typewriters into account. However, the number of women in offices was significantly lower than the number of men. Yet the typewriter was a sign of changing times, and a symbol of modernity which tied in with larger narratives, whether of nationalistic pride or discontent with the working woman.

Bhatia’s essay delves into the Godrej typewriter—the first prototype was developed in 1955, with nearly 1,800 components, many of which were made in-house. The first marketable machine was M9, and to counter an increasingly competitive market dominated by brands like Remington, Imperial and Underwood, Godrej collaborated with engineers from erstwhile East Germany. The new machine, writes Bhatia, “had more parts—around 2,500—and was far more sophisticated and tough".

The book is filled with delightful images. One, for example, is of an advertisement published by Godrej, which exhorts the reader to stop saying “May the best man win" because a woman—D.V. Padmavathi—had won the Godrej National Speed Typing championship with a remarkable 118 words per minute. Naresh Fernandes witnessed the shift from typewriters to computers in journalism, and his piece is as much a first-person account of working in The Times Of India at a time when typewriters were being phased out as it is a marking of a shift in the way journalism was practised when computers became ubiquitous. Madhulika Liddle’s piece on the typewriter in Hindi cinema reminds us of the unforgettable lyrics from the film Bombay Talkie: Typewriter tip-tip/ tip-tip, tip-tip karta hai/ Zindagi ki har kahaani likhta hai. Not surprisingly, it is a love song.

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