Who can forget them ?, not me.
I still hang on to one that I have owned for years. I am sure that Charles Schokman will never forget them either, nor will the thousands who no longer use them.
I also boast an Uncle who was the Chief Stenographer of the
Law Courts in Ceylon, of his era (1950s), visiting my good friend David Swan, the only son of Judge St.Clair Swan to watch one of his younger sisters “do her thing” on the typewriter
for her dad. I remember that she could type at about 90 words a minute, which was pretty fast. R.I.P. David, but you would have known that I was not just there to watch the typewriter at work, I was also carefully watching your other SEVEN sisters, as well, even those who could not type at all.
I also suddenly decided to go to the Polytechnic in order to learn shorthand, and type, but unfortunately, my hands were too long, and the teacher who tried to teach me to type was quite pretty as well, & I could not concentrate. Those were the days.
Then, to cap it all off, I met this very pretty Dehiwala lass, who was also a
Stenographer at the Postmaster General’s Office, in Fort, and was not only a good “Typewriter”, but also very good with “Shorthand by Pitman”.
These are some of the reasons that “TYPEWRITERS’ ALL”, are dear to me.
R.I.P. Cynthia. And so, we go on to the main typewritten story. Sorry if I’ve bored you.
Today we live in a digitally dominated era. Our communication has rapidly grown to depend on iPhones, tablets, 4G technology and a myriad of social media platforms. People do not write or receive letters anymore, in the true sense of handwritten letters.
Birthday cards often take the form of e-cards. The vibrant city of Colombo has undergone a tremendous and beautiful change. The old colonial buildings have been subdued by stunning high-rise towers. I have not seen a red double-decker bus in a long time. Perhaps one of the refreshing sights in Colombo is the presence of the smart mounted police officers, riding their horses with that dignified colonial charm. At the same time, the machines that once produced thousands of documents and letters – the typewriters have been relegated to the status of vintage antiques. This newspaper, the Daily News with a magnificent history of over 100 years, also relied on typewriters for all editorial contents before the desktop computers changed the way we operate. Until the middle of 2020, there were three legal typist clerks still using the typewriter near the vicinity of the esteemed Supreme Courts at Hulftsdorp, Colombo-12. These two men and one lady had been here for decades patiently typing letters for people who would come to courts.
These souls have been vanquished with the arrival of modern technology. With the advent of computers, the once-dominant typewriter has been relegated to an antique in the administrative realms of Sri Lanka although it is still found in some government departments. As a schoolboy, I have seen old men attired in neat white shirts, seated in the shadow of the magnificent All Saints’ Church, resting against wooden tables on which stood their precious typewriters. Their fingers moved with efficiency and the gentle clatter of the typewriter resonated as the keys pressed against the ribbon printing black on white. Except for rainy days, these obliging typists attended to many customers. It must have taken a lot of people skills to deal with all sorts of people who came seeking legal redress, displaying many moods. The last time I walked towards the Anglican Church and courthouse was a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly affected our otherwise happy lives. The pavement where they sat and typed was empty. I noticed a large blue carbon stain on the cream coloured wall, the only evidence that they had once been here. Passing the courts complex, I ventured in search of these typists. Modern internet cafes with digital typing and printing services were often found with dazzling neon signboards.
After a few minutes, I was surprised to hear the once-familiar clatter of the manual typewriter. Its sound guided me towards the large Bo tree roundabout. A man wearing black-rimmed spectacles was typing steadily with zest. I stood silently until he finished. He looked up assuming I wanted an affidavit. K. Jayasiri who is an amiable man explained, “I am 78 years old, son. I am from Dodanduwa. After I left school I was advised to learn typing which I did in 1958. However, later, I found a job in the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) head office. After I retired from the CTB, I came here with my typewriter, and have been here for almost 20 years. I begin work by 8.30 am and leave at 3.30 pm. There were many seniors here in the past, but the computer has uprooted them out of the system.” He then placed both hands on the old typewriter fondly and continued, “I can do this maybe for another two years. Who can predict the future?”
The sun spread her rays to dominate the Hulftsdorp area. After walking for about 10 minutes, the second typist was spotted, seated in the verandah of a legal office. I stepped in and introduced myself. The old gentleman behind the desk asked if I wanted to meet a lawyer, and then relaxed when I told him I am from the media. At 70 plus years, G. Rajah is a man with lots of vitality, enriched by a sense of humour. He said, “I travel to Hulftsdorp from Modara. I am a retired employee and have been doing this for the last 12 years. As you know, there were many others who did this work before us. The city has changed so much. Today everyone uses the computer. But some still continue to come to us. We have the advantage of knowing the English language and type with accuracy.” He continued, “We charge Rs. 500 for a deed. If it is typed on the computer they charge Rs. 1,000. It is a matter of choice for the customer.”
As I continued my search for these clerical relics, I found the senior-most lady typist in this area. Seated beside a large photocopy machine, a lady attired in saree was inserting an A4 sheet into the typewriter. She was unaware of my intrusion. Mildly surprised she looked up and said, “I type in Sinhalese, how can I help you, sir?” Premalatha has been at Hulftsdorp for 30 years. She happily reminisced, “Back then we were very much in demand from both civilians and lawyers. People would wait patiently until we filled up the documents. We used to charge Rs. 20 or Rs. 30 per page. We had good business then, but times have changed. I myself realized the need to stay with the current trend and learnt to operate the computer two years ago. So now I can use both, the typewriter and the computer,” she said with an air of accomplishment. Premalatha is close to 60 years, and travels to Colombo from Piliyandala. She too says she will continue for maybe another two years. During the old days, people paid and used rotary dial telephones. Today mobile phones have redefined connectivity.
Hoping to find one more typist I stood up and gazed ahead. An observant three-wheeler driver said, “Sir, walk down this lane. There is an old guy named Upali. He is a senior man. You must talk to him.” Thanking the man, I found my way down an alley lined with legal offices and sworn translators. I was shown an empty wooden desk and stool. After nearly 30 minutes, a bearded gentleman looking more like a sage walked in and eyed me with profound suspicion, his gaze piercing the thick spectacle lenses. He evaded direct eye contact. The vintage citizen smiled, “I am just coming from Mawanella. I am tired. I am going to have my tea.” With this short introduction, uttered with the speed of typewriter he waved and vanished into the crowded pavement. I patiently waited for this old typist, but I think he willfully avoided me and was not to be seen. These human beings have dedicated years typing for thousands of customers at Hulftsdorp.
They have made a silent contribution in the dispensation of legal redress. The consistent clatter of the Remington, Adler, Imperial, Royal and Olympia typewriters at Colombo-12 has faded into the sunset. The trustworthy typewriters will sit and gather dust. They were the beautiful machines that once empowered the administrative apparatus of Ceylon.