RIP: The literary piano

I’ll feel a twinge when the last typewriter heads to the museum, writes Namita Bhandare.

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News of the imminent death of the manual typewriter sent romantics all over our interconnected planet into a state of gloom. Neither the demise of the vinyl record nor the unsung departure of the rotary dial telephone triggered the sort of lamentation set off by a news report in the Business Standard: Godrej & Boyce, the last frontier for the manual typewriter, was stopping the production of its last brand, the Godrej Prima. The report went viral, inspiring requiems from Auckland to Vancouver. Not so fast, cautioned others. Apparently a New Jersey company still manufactures typewriters — including a see-through one that is very popular in prisons (easier for guards to spot contraband in its innards).

Phew, the manual typewriter still lives. Yet, what was surprising was the response, particularly by Facebookers and Tweeters, most of whom have probably never touched one. Why on earth would anyone shed tears over a gadget that can’t store, won’t google or spell-check and doesn’t give you a choice of fonts and typeface? Surely, the typewriter’s obituary is overdue.

Yes, the typewriter continues to have its more prosaic uses, outside our courts, for instance, where a small army of typists hammer out pleadings, replies, affidavits and other legalese. But their numbers are dwindling and you have to wonder: for how much longer?

Typewriting — the real thing, not the two-fingered tango — was once an essential skill. The school that admitted me to its journalism programme in 1986 insisted that I know how to type at a certain speed and so off I went to Rajesh and Naresh Gupta’s typing school where I learned to mind my qwertys and asdfgs. The trick was ‘touch’ typing; the penalty for glancing at your keyboard was to type the page all over again.

When I went looking for my first journalism job, one of the considerable seductions of the now defunct Indian Post newspaper in Mumbai was that it had these new-fangled computers. Change was knocking at the door also at the Old Lady of Boribunder. But the Times of India hadn’t reckoned with the resistance of its powerful Mumbai union which, bizarrely, didn’t want computers. For over a month, every lunch hour, protesting journalists pushed back their typewriters to angrily bang their pens on their desks.

What accounts for our enduring nostalgia for the typewriter? The typewriter physically connected writer to paper. It forced concentration. You had to be sure of what you wanted to write — cut-paste was not a matter of hitting controls x and y, nor could you open windows to quickly skype a friend or buy a book on Flipkart. It was a private symphony between you and your sheet of paper. Even now, you can spot old-timers from the sound of their keyboard. I come down so hard on mine, the volume building with the speed at which my fingers fly off the keyboard, that many letters on the keys have been erased. When I try the genteel tip-tipping of my children, it just won’t cut it: typing must have its accompanying music, even though many of the notes — the hard cc-rrunch of the roll when you fed in your paper, the polite ping when you reached the end of a line, the triumphant crack of the carriage return — are extinct. These were the sounds that led a Scientific American article in 1867 to describe the newly-invented typewriter as a ‘literary piano’.

It’s in the imagination that the typewriter lives for a generation of writers — sleeves rolled up, slouched over a Remington, cigarette dangling from mouth, a glass of whisky on the side, pounding out their masterpiece. It’s an image that has stuck, from Mark Twain, apparently the first important writer to send out a typed manuscript, to Jack Kerouac who wrote On the Road single-spaced on just one roll of paper, 120 feet long, writers and typewriters just go together.

Sure, it’s a no-contest. Given a choice, I’ll choose my computer over a typewriter any day. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t feel a twinge when the last one heads to the museum.

( Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer )

The views expressed by the author are personal

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