A chance discovery in India briefly becomes an obsession.
The document I had brought in to be typed was a page from a booklet published by the India Coffee Board. It featured a colorful story about a young saint named Baba Budan who supposedly introduced coffee to India in the 17th century after discovering the “dark, sweet liquid” on a pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the story, the only way Budan could bring coffee beans back to India was to smuggle them under his shirt, which he did with “the holiest of motives.” I wish I could say that I came upon the story naturally, but the selection was actually the result of a calculated effort. I was desperate for the typist's approval and didn't want to risk offending him. At first, I considered bringing in a local news story. I carefully sifted through the English-language newspapers that came to my apartment every day, trying to find an article that had some sort of personal significance to me but didn't mention politics or other controversial topics.
When that didn't work, I turned to the stack of papers on my desk, which is where I found the coffee booklet. I wrote an article about coffee three years ago, and the topic has been with me, as if lodged inside my brain, ever since. It seemed fitting that one of my older fixations should help me pursue my newest one. I also thought the story might serve as a conversation-starter. Coffee is very popular in Karnataka, the south Indian state where I was living, and a source of local pride.
My request to have the story translated from English into Kannada was met with confusion at first. The typist and the three men sitting around his desk couldn't fathom why I would want something typed up in a language that I didn't understand. Eventually, though, they accepted my explanation that I wanted it as a souvenir. One of the men, an older gentleman with glasses and a white beard, even agreed to help speed up the process by translating the text into longhand while the typist helped the customers ahead of me. “It is a great story,” he said when he was done writing. “And it is also true.”
My first encounter at the typist's stall had not been so pleasant. I had been living in India for about a month at that point. I had noticed his desk while out an errand and was so intrigued that I returned a few days later to see if I could talk to him. He looked to be in his late thirties and seemed friendly enough. In fact, his round face and thick, wavy hair almost gave him a cherubic quality. He wore a short-sleeved polo shirt, cotton pants, and brown leather sandals. “Hi,” I said nervously as I approached his desk. “You're a typist?” He nodded. I tried to explain why I was interested in talking to him. I mentioned that I was a writer and that I liked typing and rambled on about how in the US, where I was from, we didn't have shops like his. He frowned and asked why I was in India. I told him I was there for my husband's job. He nodded then turned his attention back to his typewriter.
I moved on to more specific questions. I asked him what kinds of things people hired him to type. Was it mostly government forms? Official papers? “Yes, official,” he said. Then I tried to ask him where he had learned to type and if he had taken classes. “There are places that teach classes,” he said. “Is that where you learned to type?” I asked. He looked up at me and furrowed his brow as if considering the question but said nothing. After a few seconds of silence I smiled, thanked him for his time, and awkwardly backed onto the main part of the sidewalk.
I later learned that typists-for-hire are now somewhat rare in India, but as my husband and I continued walking down the street that day, we happened upon another typist stall. This one was dark and set below the sidewalk by three steps. An old man dressed in white stood at the base of the stairs. “Go talk to him,” my husband said. I reluctantly descended into the small shop, which was empty but for the man and a counter that held two typewriters and a worn-out desktop computer. I asked him where he had learned to type. “I don't teach classes,” he said. “Oh, no,” I said. “I don't want to take classes. I was asking where you learned to type.” “No classes,” he said, waving his hand back and forth in front of his face for emphasis. I tried rephrasing the question a few different ways, but the response was always the same: “No classes, no classes.” My husband thought that I must have made great progress. “Hey, how'd it go?” he asked enthusiastically when I came back up the stairs. “You guys were talking for a while.”
Usually, when it's clear that the people I want to talk to don't want to talk to me, I force myself to move on, but I couldn't stop thinking about the typists. Over the next few days, I tried to figure out why I found them so captivating. I am not one of those writers who romanticizes typewriters. In fact, I have nothing but bad memories of typing up school reports on my parents' electric model. Everything about that machine was a struggle. It would take me fifteen minutes or more just to get the paper loaded properly. And, no matter how carefully I typed, the sticky keys and inconsistent ink ensured that each page would require at least one application of Wite-Out. I often wonder if people nostalgic for typewriters remember what a huge pain in the ass they were. Perhaps that's part of the appeal. If so, I don't get it. Isn't writing hard enough as it is?
And yet I found the idea of typing outside for a living incredibly compelling. It probably helped that I first discovered outdoor typists in Bangalore, a city in south India known for its favorable climate. But there was more to it than that. I saw other outdoor jobs in India that appealed to me — for example, running a clothes-ironing stand under the shade of a coconut tree — but I was only fascinated by the typists. I suspect that the perversion of doing office work in the open air was part of the appeal. I also liked how the sidewalk stalls transformed what was normally an isolating profession into a social activity. Sidewalk typists interact with the community directly, and their work matters in an immediate sense. In India, which consistently ranks as one of the most bureaucratic countries in the world, paperwork is an unavoidable part of life. Even seemingly minor purchases and service requests, such as hiring an electrician, can involve filling out forms, sometimes in multiple languages. Most Indian typists can type in English and at least one official Indian language, of which there are more than 20 besides Hindi. Some of the typists' customers are illiterate, but most simply lack the equipment and expertise to type up the forms they need themselves.
At a certain point I stopped trying to understand my fascination. The question was what to do next. I had come across several articles that said typewriters and typists-for-hire were on the way out in India now that personal computers were becoming more popular. The typewriter business was still booming throughout the 1990s, but the past ten years had brought on a steep decline. It was generally assumed that the trade would die out completely when Godrej & Boyce, the main producer of Indian-language typewriters, shuttered its manufacturing operation in 2009— it had been the last remaining manual typewriter manufacturer in the world. I had become infatuated with a phenomenon that was on its last legs.
But I could see, even from casual observations that the first typist I came across in Bangalore was doing well. His stall's copy machines may have been the main customer draw, but he seemed to have plenty of typing work to keep him busy. He also looked happy. As I traveled around India, I was convinced I would find more typists like him and looked for typist stalls everywhere I went. I found two in Mumbai. The first was a cramped, practically standing-room-only stall in a downtown market that was run by a skinny old man whose stern face suggested he'd rather be anywhere else. The second one had a more content-looking typist, a young woman, but was off by itself in what appeared to be an abandoned parking lot near the airport, far away from the community and, presumably, most customers. I didn't see any typists in Chennai or New Delhi, perhaps because I didn't go to the right places. Still, even in Bangalore, where I spent the most time, I struggled. Copier stalls, with hand-painted signs that spelled XEROX vertically in massive red letters, were everywhere — as many as two per block in some areas — but none of them seemed to have typists.
I began to realize that my original typist was probably an anomaly and that, like it or not, he was the one I needed to talk to again. Returning to his stall as a customer seemed like a good way to watch him work without interfering with his business (or getting yelled at). The plan succeeded in that it allowed me to spend more time at the stall and get a feel for how it operates, but the typist was not much more forthcoming than he'd been the first time I talked to him. I learned that he preferred Remington typewriters for English and that he had been working at the stall for six years, but that was about it. I still don't know when or where he learned to type.
I visited him a third time a few days before I left India. Diwali, the big Hindu winter holiday, had started that week, so I brought along a box of chocolate-covered almonds to give him as a present. I noticed that he had gotten a haircut since the last time I had seen him but thought it might be weird to mention it. Instead, I told him that I would be returning to the US soon and handed him the chocolates, which he accepted eagerly. He didn't have any customers waiting, so I got to sit on the stool next to his desk once more. We discussed south Indian food, and he asked me about the other places in India I'd been to. It was a similar version of the conversation we'd had during my previous visit, but this time I found it familiar and comforting.
Then, something strange happened. I asked him if he lived in the neighborhood, assuming the answer would be yes, and he revealed that he lived in a village an hour away. “I am working tomorrow, but I will be there on Sunday,” he said. “Will you come?” Before I could respond, he proceeded to give me detailed instructions for how to get there by bus. I told him I would check with my husband, but that we probably wouldn't be able to make it. “You can bring your husband,” he assured me. He grabbed a pen and started writing down the directions for me. He included his mobile number as well. Shortly afterward, a customer came up to the desk, and I took it as my cue to leave. I pocketed the hand-written directions, but again said that I was unlikely to come on Sunday. “Will you at least try to come?” he asked.
I had already learned that hospitality could be personal in India. Food and drink are hardly ever offered nonchalantly or out of politeness as they are in the West. On one occasion, a host's offer of tea was so insistent that I forced myself to drink a cup even though my stomach felt like it was going to explode. But I was still taken aback by the typist's plea. In our previous encounters, he seemed to barely tolerate me, but now, all of a sudden, he wanted to spend his one day off — during a holiday week, no less — showing me his village. I hoped that he didn't feel indebted to me because of the chocolates. I saw them as a small parting gift, the kind of thing you might give a co-worker you don't know that well and certainly not something that need to be reciprocated.
I had planned on calling him that Sunday to confirm that I wouldn't be coming out to visit, but I didn't, even though my husband provided me with an easy excuse by being sick in bed. I feared the inevitable communication difficulties and the disappointment I expected to hear in his voice. But, most of all, I felt guilty for not going because I could have gone, and I knew that, as a writer, I probably should have. Not calling was a way to avoid that guilt. In the end, I learned something about a topic that had caught my interest. It wasn't the ideal result, but it wasn't insignificant either. And, although it started out as a pretense for spending time with the typist, my typed story in Kannada has become one of my favorite souvenirs. I particularly like how he chose to sign the page. He switched to the English typewriter, typed his name and, below that, “Typist, Bangalore.” Then, with four sharp rotations of the paper, he surrounded the signature with a near-perfect rectangle of asterisks. It was a nice touch, and completely unexpected, as the best travel experiences often are. • 15 February 2013
Erica Westly is a freelance science writer based in Queens, New York.
Photograph on the homepage courtesy of Eric Parker / CC BY-NC 2.0.