Typing out a eulogy for the trusty old typewriter
An era came to a close yesterday when nearly seven lakh students became the last ever batch of the Government Certificate in Computer Typing Basic Course (GCC-TBC) in Maharashtra to use typewriters in their course and for their exams.
As journalists, it’s not uncommon for us to have colleagues who took their first steps by carefully collecting all the skills required to be a nifty newshound – including doing their time on the trusty old typewriter. They were sure this would set their destiny as a scrivener in stone – much like the typewriter itself that so obstinately etches ink on paper.
If you’re imagining someone with half-moon glasses and hair that have greyed with wisdom, you’re wrong – for fellow journalists and writers as young as 40 associate the sound of the clickety-clack to their initial years out in the field. But the closest that the rest of us, merely 15-18 years younger, may have gotten to a typewriter is on the other side of a glass shelf, perhaps at a museum, or in a collector’s trove. This just proves how swiftly the computers came and conquered.
The Centre itself has been moving aggressively towards e-governance, and decided to start phasing out typewriting courses starting April 2013, in order to usher in digitisation and computers. The Maharashtra state government ratified and finally, last year, they decided to discontinue the typewriting course in a year’s time. Yesterday, nearly seven lakh students became the last ever batch of the Government Certificate in Computer Typing Basic Course (GCC-TBC) in Maharashtra to have used typewriters, as they appear for the exams.
“In the three-month gap before college started, most of us enrolled in typing and shorthand classes. I wanted to be a reporter and my father insisted these classes would help me become a ‘good one’,” recounts Rekha Balakrishnan, a Bengaluru-based journalist.
Years after taking the class, when Rekha entered the field of journalism, she finally realised the value of those typing classes, for she found herself caught in the crossfire of a bidding war for her transcription services. “Back in the day, people would come up to me and offer me five rials (this was in Muscat, Oman) to transcribe one cassette. "Ha! In hindsight, I would have made more money that way!” she quips.
“That typewriting tests are being phased out just makes me nostalgic. But practically speaking, who would want to use outdated typewriters in the age of computers? And if you want to type the old-fashioned way, you can do it on your computer too. Believe me, it makes you quick and more efficient,” she says.
However, India prides itself on being rooted – which may help in strengthening socio-cultural values, but is an albatross when it comes to staying technologically abreast with the world. The Centre’s decision to scrap the typewriter wasn’t accepted swimmingly. After all, the telegram did not go down without a fight either – it lost £165 million in the last seven years of its existence before the “STOP” telegram was sent to lay it to rest. So, similarly, the Maharashtra State Council of Examination (MSCE) had contested this decision tooth and nail when it was first announced in 2013, stating that typewriting formed the basis for computer-related work – and procured multiple extensions for the programme.
The industry employs nearly 10,000 people, who dot courthouses, legal chambers and other government offices like police stations. Nearly 3,500 typewriting institutes still teach the course on the rock-ribbed old fella across Maharashtra. Interestingly, Sanjay N Khanvilkar, the dean for Khanvilkar Institute of Computer Typing & Shorthand in Mumbai, notes that 90 percent of the typewriter institutes have already been registered for the government’s computer typing programme. Sanjay himself is an old-timer and has been in this trade since 1983. But he also switched to computers three years ago, ever since the government started gunning for Digital India.
“The computer course introduced by the government is very advantageous to them as well as the institute owners. The students who take this course will be acquainted with basic computer operating knowledge because the ones learning on the typewriters lacked that skillset and faced many issues in interviews these days,” he says.
But, an excerpt from the report submitted by the MCSE officials opposed to this move citing that it is premature to completely depend on computers, reads, “Keep the current manual typing courses alive. But, considering changes in digital world, it is important to combine computer training courses and typewriting courses.”
Sanjay agrees, stating that they have been and will continue doing the basic teaching on the typewriter for the first two months of the course – to get one’s fingers accustomed to the layout of the keys and the pressure. The remaining course, as well as the exams, then happen on the computer. “That way, they won’t spoil the keyboard, because computer keypads are more fragile compared to the durable typewriter,” he notes. But occupational hazards include getting so accustomed to raining down on the buttons that you never quite succeed in giving your laptop or computer the tender loving it signed up for.
“The only thing I needed to unlearn was to stop banging on the keys. ‘You use a laptop, for God’s sake!’ was the constant refrain,” Rekha jokes.
While the falling prices of computers have been a prime reason for the digital agenda getting carried forward, the institutes resentfully note that conducting the examinations on computers is still a strain on their finances, due to their general lack of resources. Some critics also argue that frequent power cuts in Maharashtrian hamlets in and around Pune, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Marathwada and Vidarbha make it non-conducive to switch to PCs.
But countless other institutes like Sanjay Khanvilkar’s have hailed this move as progressive and practical. They insist that the government has the best interests at its heart of those countless aspirants that come in from villages and smaller towns with hopes of being pencil pushers in large offices, and turn to stenography as their tickets out of poverty.