BOOK EXCERPT

The QWERTY clatter from the street-typists of India has not yet been drowned by digital documents

Scenes from courts around India, and one in Ahmedabad.

It is 11 am and the premises of the City Civil & Sessions Court or Bhadra Court, as it is popularly referred to in Ahmedabad, is abuzz with the day’s routines – lawyers in their black blazers and their clients huddled in deep discussion are everywhere, another group of lawyers is sitting under a tree sharing tea and a table which is their makeshift chamber with colleagues as their eyes scan the crowd for customers, the tea boys are rushing about with their kettle and cups, plaintiffs with lost looks on their faces and a clutch of papers and files are everywhere. They are soon to get an experience of the twin beasts that are the Indian legal system and bureaucracy.

In the middle of all this chaos sit a 100- odd men with their typewriters, mostly Olympia machines. The job typists seated on ledges or on stools and balancing their machines on rickety tables that I’ve seen outside courts in almost any city I’ve travelled to are, in many ways, the last foot soldiers fighting a losing battle in the fight for the survival of the typewriter. However, there is a small difference at the Bhadra Court – this army of typists work sitting on the ground, on dusty and faded mats, their typewriters placed on top of a briefcase usually stuffed with personal documents and belongings, an assortment of stationery and forms, the briefcase acting as their work table. The flow of work waxes and wanes through the day and often the men can be seen killing time by either reading the papers or chatting with other colleagues and having tea.

Bhagwandas, who was once the President of an informal association of these men and has made the base of a tree his “office”, was rummaging through a bag from which he pulled out a handful of chickpeas and casually spread it out behind him and as if on cue three squirrels darted down from the branches above and began to busily eat Bhagwandas’s offerings. Bhagwandas is a “Gujarati typist” like most of the men you’ll find there, charging about 15 rupees per page typed.

A few like “JK” offer both languages – Gujarati and English. “JK” is slightly touched in the head and is often the first one to shout and call out to the foreigners and visitors like us who inadvertently land up here, taken in by the curious sight of these typists, while looking down from the ramparts of the adjoining fort built by Ahmed Shah. “JK was a very talented man and a very good and efficient typist but unfortunately now…,” most of his colleagues trail off letting you fill in the gaps and imagine his condition.

JK pulls out a flute and strikes a pose like Lord Krishna, speaks about Gandhian philosophy, about god and brotherly love and takes you around and introduces you to the gathered typists, each one his brother or his elder brother or sometimes even “greater than my elder brother” because they had helped him in some small or big way.

The typists here are a chatty lot and speak quite freely and are not suspicious of my intent like in some of the other places I’ve been. Naresh Bhramabhatt, a typist since 1985, offers me tea and conversation when I ask him what they do during the monsoons. “We gather our belongings and go and sit under that shed and continue our work,” he says in a very matter-of-fact way. “That shed is very crowded because all the lawyers sit there but then we all know each other for years now and they accommodate us. We need each other, after all,” he says.

Earlier that day, Abdul Samad, a 47-year old typist and a journalism diploma holder told me how the typists came to occupy the shaded ground under the trees. “That shed was originally allocated for us typists but the lawyers moved in swiftly and we soon lost our place. They were greater in number and they have more power here. I’ve heard that was many many years back. I’ve been here for the last 14 years and I’ve always seen it like this,” he told me. “Not much has changed in these years except that a few of the seniors have passed on but there haven’t been too many new people who have joined our numbers,” said Abdul.

“Many trucks used to be parked here in this place during the day and some of us used to even sit in their shade and do our work,” remembers Naresh. According to him their numbers have “stayed more or less the same”. But why do they sit on the ground and work? Why not get tables and stools, I wondered. “One of the earlier judges feared that if we are given tables and chairs then it would legitimise our presence and then the lawyers too would start setting up their tables…so we have not been given permission,” he informed me.

“You saw Maneck Chowk just outside those gates? That area is packed with shops of jewellers and is also a bustling market…It is believed that the entire stretch from there to here, where we sit,” he said drawing a wavy line in the air to indicate the street, “is blessed by Lakshmi…and so we have little to complain, thanks to her,” he went on to add.

We chatted about other things like family, life in Ahmedabad, the Gujaratis, the state of the nation and then I couldn’t resist asking if it wasn’t uncomfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor and typing. “I can tell you this much that not one of us in all these years has got a back problem,” said Naresh who now was lounging, resting his elbows on a stack of files looking like a zamindar lazily resting on a bolster-pillow. “We’ve got used to working like this,” he said, “and I, at least, won’t be able to sit on a chair and work on my typewriter.”

Bangalore City Civil Court
Bangalore City Civil Court
Delhi Tis Hazari District Court
Delhi Tis Hazari District Court
Srinagar District Sessions Court
Srinagar District Sessions Court

All photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhuri.

Excerpted with permission from “Street Typists of India”, Chirodeep Chaudhuri, from with Great Truth & Regard: The Story of the Typewriter in India, Edited by Sidharth Bhatia, Photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Roli Books.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.