Dipankar Das can spend hours talking about typewriters, their tiny components, and how to replace one if it’s damaged. He can recite a list of organisations in Kolkata that still use typewriters in their offices, and those that have stopped using them recently. He knows all about the machines these companies have in their dump yards.
“The Indian Statistical Institute has almost all their type writing machines they have used over the years lying in their attics,” Das said with a sigh. “They can neither use them nor are they allowed to sell them off. Only when they get approval from their top authorities to sell their stuff at scrap rates will these machines be thrown away along with damaged furniture and the like. The Small Industries Service Institute in Bonhoogly, Kolkata, has three left with them. They are still usable, but no one wants to use them anymore.”
Das has gathered this vast store of information over the three decades that he has visited these organisations as a repairman. To many people, he would seem like an anachronism, an analogue dinosaur in a digital world. Ironically, five years after the world’s last mechanical typewriter manufacturing company, Godrej and Boyce, closed down, Das and others with his skills find themselves in high demand.
When Godrej and Boyce shut shop in 2011, it had 500 machines on offer. Its warehouse has been converted into a refrigerator-manufacturing unit. But that had not sounded the death knell for the typical mechanical typewriters still clattering outside Indian courts and government offices. The typists who sit at street corners or under shades of trees in front of public offices, typing neat sheets of official documents, haven't gone out of work. India’s countless typists still hunch over their Remingtons, Underwoods, or Hermeses to produce clean drafts of deeds, wills, applications and agreements. And who repairs these machines when they are stuck? Extraordinaires like Dipankar Das.
The job isn't without its challenges, though. While mechanical typewriters are still available online, spare parts aren't easy to come by. Keeping the machines serviced and repaired often depends on the innovation and creativity of people like Das, who are former employees of the companies that used to manufacture typewriters.
“It’s true that you don’t find the parts in the open market, but through our experiences we have come to know certain sources,” he explained. Many small-scale manufacturers that used to supply parts to big typewriter producers continue to make small quantities of components, usually on request. Repairmen pick them up directly from the workshop.
Das remembers a recent repair where the roller of a machine had gone kaput. “Spare rollers are not available any more," he said. "I couldn’t find a suitable one after a reasonable wait, so then I took one from the electronic typing machines and adjusted it to fit into the current machine. It’s working fine.” In another case, one of the tiny internal parts had to be fabricated from scrap iron, measured and adjusted to fit the particular machine. Das is happy to recount the unusual efforts he's made to bring a machine to life.
“Then there are times an old machine reaches us that is beyond repair,” Das said. “We dismantle the machine, clean up and polish the parts, if needed, do metal plating, and those could be used for replacing similar parts in other reparable machines.”
There's a hint of tragedy to the way Das learnt his trade. Das’s father worked at the Kolkata office of Remington, the oldest commerical typewriter manufacturing company in the world. He died in 1986 while at work, on his desk. Das was then pursuing vocational and technical studies. To compensate for his father’s death, Remington offered Das a job as an apprentice mechanic. Das was a quick learner.
He travelled widely to work as a service man organisations that had bought Remington machines in large quantities and had an annual servicing contracts: the Railways, the Army barracks, the State Bank of India, among others. “That period taught me so much about typewriting machines that you give me the 1,200 parts a typewriter needs, and I’ll assemble the machine in my sleep,” Das said.
These skills make him indispensable to people who still use typewriters.
When Remington was closed down in 1997, Das, like many other staffers were at their wit’s end. Their salaries were pending, their provident fund money went missing. “The company cleared our money as much as it could,” said Das forgivingly, and recounted the number of his colleagues who committed suicide over the years as they failed to make ends meet. “I struggled hard. I had a family to run. I could not break down. For a few years after the shutdown, a few of us would still visit the client companies who had bought Remington typewriters in the past to service their machines.” Gradually these sources started drying out as computers began filtering into big organisations. “Computers were still very expensive, and we were trying to find new clients,” Das said.
In a few years, many organisations started selling both their functional and damaged type machines. Their typists had gone into retirement and had been replaced by computer operators. The likes of Das would manage to procure these machines, repair them, polish them if needed, and sell them to interested buyers. “The profit margin would be something around Rs 500 per machine,” he added. “The spare parts had become costlier, sometimes by almost 20 times, with lack of supply and deep customisation.”
People still buy typewriters. “I think they mostly buy these to practice typing at home,” he said. Some state government departments still have jobs for clerks, typists, and shorthand writers. The Public Service Commission exams require candidates to have a good typing speed. “It’s easier to practice typing and increase your speed when you have a type machine at home,” explained Das.
Das has started a new venture of selling toys a few months ago. Fixing typewriters has become a side business. “That’s my strong point," he said. "It has sunk into my genes now. There was a time when I used to be busy from morning till late into the night. Work has reduced substantially, but still there are people, and typewriters, that need me.”