November 29: Talking to Thane-based street photojournalist Chirodeep Chaudhuri is like going on a visual journey. He is full of anecdotes and his part-philosophical, part-funny musings from his six-year journey of documenting the typewriter paint a fascinating picture of the machine that once revolutionized the country and is now slowly but surely dying. The book is called With Great Truth and Regard: The Journey of the Typewriter in India and it has been commissioned by Godrej Archives.
Godrej was largest typewriter manufacturing company in India till it decided to stop making it in 2009. Chirodeep learnt about the event, thanks to one of his cousins who works in Godrej Archives. She in turn introduced him to Vrunda Pathare- the Head of Godrej Archives- and Chirodeep pitched the idea of documenting the day with senior journalist and friend, Jerry Pinto. “That never materialized but I kept writing to her (Pathare) with ideas for a possible book,” he says. And after about a year of almost spamming her with messages, he received word that Godrej would indeed be keen on documenting the typewriter.
“My first instinct was that we should hurry because Godrej had stopped manufacturing the machine, I imagined we had very little time to photograph the people who used it!” As time went by, Chirodeep realized he couldn’t be more wrong. Technology in India, he learnt, doesn’t die a violent death. People keep using it for several years before the cannibalizing begins and it is another few years before the technology finally goes to the grave. ALSO READ: 18 things you should know about the popular Sunday Book Market at Daryaganj in Old Delhi
As for the typewriter, it has received a new lease of life also thanks, in part, to the hipsters. The retro-cool appeal of the machine has ensured that you will find it either as part of the décor in cafes or as a showpiece in people’s homes. But nothing had prepared him for the sight that awaited him at a Municipal school in Worli, Mumbai.
“There were classrooms after classrooms filled with students who were fiercely typing away on ancient typewriters that were sourced from local institutes. I remember thinking, why are we even doing this book? Who said the typewriter was dying?” As it turns out, certain government jobs need to test the typing speed of the applicant on a typewriter, till today. For Chirodeep this is one of the many absurdities of India: the fact that such multiple realities co-exist with each other.
But that was far from the last epiphany he was to have about the typewriter’s impact on people in the subcontinent. In his book Chirodeep has recreated his encounters with typewriter connoisseurs, collectors, artists and at least one person who was so obsessed with the machine, that he found the most bizarre way to tell the world about it. Chirodeep recollects how a casual chat with a typewriter mechanic lead him to chase down Aurangabad resident Naveen Patel, who had built his house’s roof to resemble the keyboard of a typewriter.
“It could very well have been a wild goose chase”, Chirodeep says, remembering being skeptical but thoroughly intrigued at the thought of this surreal house. But it did turn out to be a real house with cement keys, exactly like those of a typewriter on its roof. Patel fashioned those keys himself, since none of the masons seemed to have understood his vision.
Naveen’s is not the only personal account, which brings the typewriter’s story to life. There are many such extraordinary tales, narrated with great delight in the book. These include stories such as that of a travel writer who raises suspicion at an airport security check because of her strange-looking machine, a teenager who demands a retro cool gift for her birthday and a Parsi woman pharmacist who uses her rusty trusty machine to type out some 300 medicine labels every day, to name a few. ALSO READ: 5 best libraries in Mumbai every bibliophile must visit
Then there are the stories of those who made the numerous components, and most prominently the typewriting types and fonts. Chirodeep also recounts meeting a type maker in Allahabad, who manufactured types for all the languages one could ever think of — a task that requires high levels of precision. “It was a greasy garage of sorts and definitely not the kind of place that would have been conducive to precision work.
Then there is the story of Godrej itself, which made the very first truly Indian typewriter in 1940s, with Remington as its only competition in the country. The India typewriter was born out of Naval Pirojsha Godrej’s ‘dogged determination’ to make the newly-independent India self-reliant in manufacturing the machine, which was being made by only a handful of companies around the world. The book describes in great detail the ups and downs of the Godrej Prima and its consequential success.
But the book is not just pictures and stories. It also offers us fascinating insights into the way the typewriter changed the economic and social landscape of the Indian work place. From talking about how the typewriter revolutionized government offices, to exploring the role of the machine in making workspaces inclusive for women, the book has presented a well-rounded account of its journey.
Chirodeep has been engrossed in the project for the past six years and has contributed a lot more than just the photographs, although they are the most important agents of story telling in the book. “I’m not a very big fan of just the pictures; you have to be able to complete the communication and to visualize it (the project) completely,” Chirodeep told us, explaining how he put as much impetus on the reporting and the conceptualizing, as he did on the photographing.
And it is thus that the book doesn’t just narrate the story of the typewriter through the eyes of the quintessential big cities but also from the perspective of the narrow lanes of India’s tier two cities where aspiration meets hard work and where the romance for the old also has an element of practicality. With Great Truth and Regard will be released on December 1 at the Godrej campus in Vikhroli, Mumbai.
With Great Truth and Regard — The Story of the Typewriter in India, edited by Sidharth Bhatia, Rs 2,500. Publisher: Godrej & Boyce; distributed by Roli Books.