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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