Storytellers of a new generation
A Hospital For The Ageing Typewriter Cover Picture

A Hospital For The Ageing Typewriter

Bejon Madon, 71, is a sailor at heart. There is nothing that he enjoys more than a day on the water with his mates from the Colaba Sailing Club, where he also happens to be a board member. I met him at his airy one-room office attached to a small workshop in the Marine Lines area of south Mumbai. These days he can afford to take time out for his passion but till a decade ago, the volume of work wouldn’t even allow him the luxury of a leisurely lunch, let alone sailing.

Bejon is in the business of repairing and servicing typewriters; a device ubiquitous in almost every Indian office till the late 1990’s, before it was relegated to the most niche businesses by the all conquering computer. “My father-in-law started General Office Typewriters in the 1960s. I joined him in 1976 when the workload became too much for him to handle,” said Bejon, giving me a 101 on the establishment’s history. Those days phones wouldn’t stop ringing with some of the biggest organisations relying on Bejon’s mechanics to get them out of sticky situations.Bejon examining a portable typewriter in his workshopBejon examining a portable typewriter

In its heyday, General Office Typewriters (GOT) had 15 full time mechanics criss-crossing the city tirelessly, keeping its typewriters in the pink of health. Most of them were in their early 20’s when they joined the firm; learning a trade that was both lucrative and seemingly perennial. Typewriters were the order of the day and no office with any decent amount of paperwork could function without these human powered contraptions. The mechanics were on first name basis with large typing pools that used to dot the floors of all such offices. Of course, the clickety-clack din made sure these pools were never anyones first choice for neighbours.

Today the number of full-time mechanics has come down to two. These men who joined young, are now veteran specialists who have no one left to teach. The business has inevitably become one of old men.

The service contracts used by the repairmenThe service contracts used by the repairmen

But work still rolls in. A sizable number of typewriters are used by law courts, notary authorities and many private individuals who wouldn’t trade their typewriters for any computer in the world. For example Chandrakant Bhide, one of Bejon’s oldest clients actually creates celebrated art pieces with his trusted typewriter. Even conventional offices make use of a typewriter once in a while. “A bank official was telling me that banks still like to keep typewriters for utility sake, as it’s easier to add text that got left out of a computer printout with a typewriter than to take the print again”. The usurped complementing the usurper then.

The main workshop is a small, neatly arranged annex in Bejon’s office with labelled boxes containing spare parts lining the walls. There were some amazing old portable typewriters lying on the workshop table when I entered the sunlit space.  A feature-rich Brother and a Royal portable that typed out beautiful cursive font caught my eye. “I got this beauty from an old lady who requested me to take it away as she had no use for it in the house after her husband died. I use this typewriter to write most of my personalised notes. The running-hand print is special.” He showed me what was, perhaps, the star of GOT – an 80 year old Remington. “An old Parsi couple that didn’t want the dinosaur lying around in the house sold it to me for 1000 bucks. I can get whatever I want for this piece but I wouldn’t sell it because that money won’t last me forever but the beauty of the typewriter will.”

The cursive font on the Royal portableThe cursive font on the Royal portable

Once upon a time this workshop must have had typewriters coming in and out on a daily basis but now it felt more like a final resting place for these aging machines.

“This has turned into a loss making business but I want to keep the machines working for the people who are using them. It also keeps me occupied and keeps my mechanics employed,’ said Bejon without a hint of regret.

The ancient RemingtonThe ancient Remington

There was business to attend to and Bejon turned to his assistant working with a Godrej Prima – the last line of office typewriters that the Vikhroli based Godrej and Boyce manufactured before shutting shop in 2009 (This sadly brought an end to the era of manual typewriters worldwide). Bejon leaves me with his parting words. “A typewriter makes one think of what they are writing. It makes them concentrate on their work. You can’t easily wipe away all your mistakes and start over. It’s almost like life itself.”

Words and Photography: Avijit Pathak