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Published On: Tue, Mar 4th, 2014

India’s street typists heading for a final full-stop

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By Rahul Tandon

Ajay and his fellow typists find themselves increasingly waiting for work these days. Every morning, as he has done for the past 34 years, Ajay Kumar Nayak, would walk to a busy footpath outside Calcutta’s high court, set up a rickety wooden table, place a battered plastic chair behind it and then carefully place his 15-year-old typewriter on the table.

After covering his desk with a piece of tarpaulin to protect his prized possession from the sun, he would be ready for business as one of Calcutta’s few remaining street typists.

“A decade ago I would have had no time to sit and chat. My fingers would have been tapping away all day,” he says.

“All you would have heard was the sound of the typewriter. Now there is only silence.”

He pauses for a minute and points to the few other typists who remain on the street – one is sitting sipping a cup of tea; another is reading a newspaper.

“Look at us. We have nothing to do now,” says Ajay.

“If you come back in a few years’ time there will be nobody left here. The computer has killed our profession.”

Ajay and his friends used to be busy dealing with all sorts of documents like love letters. Complex legal drafts were their staple work, but there would also be wedding card messages to type or CVs to update.

They all laugh as they tell me how some young men used to ask them to type out love letters.

“Maybe we should start offering divorce letters,” jokes one. “Maybe that could help us get some work.”

Their conversation stops for a moment as a potential client walks towards them, but after a moment he moves on, and their conversation resumes.

As Ajay and his fellow typists find themselves increasingly waiting for work, a few miles from the high court is the Suffee Commercial College. For the past 80 years young men and women have come here to learn how to type. On the ground floor there is still a darkened classroom full of Remington typewriters, perched idly on wooden desks, but they are rarely used now.

“Next year will be the last year that we run typing classes,” says Mohammed Quamar Hamid, whose family has been running the college since it was established.

“There is no demand for it, and when I ask the youngsters to practice their keyboard skills on these typewriters they just look at me and say, ‘what is the point?’”

He asks me to follow him to another room. Inside is a row of computers, and in front of them is a group of young girls in their early 20s.

“For them to get a job in India’s competitive job market they need computer skills,” he says.

“Nobody uses a typewriter any more. In a few years’ time the only place you will see them is in a museum.” Students do not want to learn typing any more, says Mohammed Quamar Hamid.

The girls all nod their heads in agreement. One student, Neha, who has just scored 97% in her computer keyboard skills test, says manual typewriters “are not practical any more”.

“Today so much has to be done in the office, and with a computer it’s easy to correct your mistakes,” she says.

Being a street typist is something she says she “would never do”.

“I think that we should keep abreast with technology and not look backwards. Typewriters are not part of our scene anymore.”

When I asked the class whether any of them think they will ever use typewriters, the answer is a resounding no.

Another student, Divya, speaks for the class when she says: “It is so hard to use. That is why we all prefer computers. We want an easy life.”

Back outside the high court, Ajay Kumar Nayak has finally got a client.

But after he finishes typing up the legal document – for which he gets seven rupees (7p, 11 cents) a page – he and his friends resume their conversation.

In Calcutta 20 years ago, there were about 2,000 street typists; now there are only a few hundred left.

Typewriter-filled classrooms like this are disappearing; Ajay took the job because he could find no other work. He says he would not advise anyone to follow his example.

“There are only old men here now. There are no youngsters here.”

“I even told my son not to join this profession as it is difficult to make a living on the streets now.”

It is time for him to go home after another largely fruitless day.

As I walk away he shouts out: “Come and see me soon. I and my friends may not be here for much longer.”

BBC Africa

 

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