I miss my old typewriter, a portable Brother. It’s still in good shape and luckily so as technicians who repair typewriters have long gone out of business and typewriter ribbons have now been relegated to museum pieces. It took me more than two decades to shift from my portable to the personal computer. And a few more years to try and cope with its puzzling language: Ctrl, Alt, Tab, Scroll Lock, PrtScr SysRq and so on. I’ve still not mastered its intricacies. And I still use my old desktop. The feathertouch laptop is beyond me. When it comes to electronics in general, my mind is instantly shortcircuited. I’m a tech-tyro—my Facebook account is quite faceless and I struggle to send an SMS message.
The PC of course has its advantages: no frayed ribbons, no rubber erasers, and it offers instant access to background checks and information on the internet besides spell checks and word counts. It underlines grammatical errors, though this can be irritating, especially if you’re creating your own grammar in a poem. The PC literally brings the world to your fingertips through such mindboggling inventions as Google and Internet Explorer. But, I miss the rhythmic clickety-click of the typewriter, its tinkle after the completion of each line, its keys, as I once described them in a poem, like the ‘seats of an empty stadium’. And it had another great advantage: it was immune to viruses that plague the computer system, viruses with menacing names like Code Red and My Doom, viruses which are still untamed and incurable and let loose by bored computer whizkids or by vindictive government secret agents. These viruses can wipe out a lifetime’s work on the press of a key. I’m a little paranoid of such viral attacks and make sure to send my hard earned manuscripts for safe keeping to friends via email. Or I keep printed versions of these manuscripts. When I receive no reply to an email after a respectable lapse of time, I turn to my trusty mobile and make a call. Did I say ‘trusty mobile’? In reality, I don’t have full control even over that ubiquitous instrument. The more advanced the model, the more bewildered I am by it. I wonder if people actually use all the apps these instruments offer. Perhaps among these myriad applications, there’s even an attached telescope to view the craters of the moon?
Even as I write this essay, other worries crop up. ‘Something’s not right’ warns my computer screen as I set out to send an email or explore the internet. There’s always the constant fear that some element in the software or hardware will begin to malfunction, more so in the monsoons with moisture collecting in the machine or a power breakdown suddenly shutting down the system. A system shutdown is my perennial nightmare. And the long wait stretching on to days for the technician to set the machine right.
Given all these apprehensions, it’s little wonder that all my first drafts of poems, stories or articles are written in longhand. It has always been comforting to me to make such drafts palpable on paper. In fact, I have notebooks and diaries dating back to several years crammed with such first drafts. Often these drafts are barely legible. But they’re there, at no risk of being wiped out by a virus. The flow of ink on paper is still an unmatched sensation.
My young daughters find my electronic struggles amusing. They’ve never used a typewriter. Like other young folk, they’ve taken to the laptop like sunflowers turning naturally to the sun. They’re often exasperated by my appeals for help. And I can never seem to remember their directions—which keys to press when. To overcome this impasse, I write down their instructions so as not to harangue them yet again, though I’m still quite often confronted by more glitches.
I feel a sense of nostalgia when I look back on my typewriter days, not just my own Brother, but all those secretarial services available on the pavements in Bombay. Among other places, these typists sat outside law courts and in the busy commercial areas in the bylanes of the Fort area, They all used Remington and Godrej typewriters, their fingers flashing at seventy words a minute.
Beyond these hardworking typists, as a writer of sorts, I’m in good company. Long before the advent of the chip and the computer, all the great masterpieces in literature—and in other fields—were typed. Museums and other repositories all over the world still preserve these precious manuscripts. The paper may be fraying but the typed words are still intact, often with handwritten comments in the margins. Now of course old drafts, books and manuscripts can be easily stored forever in cyberspace. But the human touch is missing. That tactile feel of finger on paper as you examine a manuscript in rapt attention can only be discovered or rediscovered in museums and libraries.
The loss of the past is fertile hunting ground for poetry. To conclude this little ode to the typewriter, here is a poem I wrote with more than a passing reference to the writer Eudora Welty, after whom was named the email application Eudora before Firefox zoomed in. I presume that Welty, born in 1909, wrote most of her stories and novels on a typewriter.
The Old Typist’s Lament
I was the speed-king
Of Pitman shorthand,
My script fine as Arabic,
And spared time to write
And address in flowing serifs
Postcards at the GPO
For the blind and illiterate
As a social service.
My fingertips rattled
Over storeyed Remingtons
And my faithful Brother
At eighty words a minute.
A thrilling tabla rhythm!
I was the boss’ favourite,
The envy of the office girls.
Then came that invention
Named after a famous lady writer.
No more faded ribbons.
No more carbon paper.
And I was no longer the reigning
Lord of the Files.
Now your only goddess
Is your screensaver—
A lush blonde or brunette
You airbrush to your dreams.
But the true Eudora Welty wrote
Timeless stories and more
On heartbreak and friendship
In a slow Mississippi drawl.
You think you know it all—
The cyber pals you’ve never met
Your instant gods. But I’m told
There’s that New Age hacker
All set to infect your system
With just one keystroke, and look,
Even your longhand
Is a spidery crawl.
Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) was recently published by Speaking Tiger, comprising his individual collections. In the UK his poems have appeared in London Magazine, Poetry Review, Wasafiri and Poetry Wales. In the United States his poems have appeared in Chelsea, The Baffler, Atlanta Review and New Letters, and Helix in Australia. Several anthologies feature his work, notably The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (ed Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, OUP, N Delhi) and in anthologies edited by Eunice de Souza and Vilas Sarang. Shetty has been a Homi Bhabha Fellow and a Senior Sahitya Akademi Fellow. He edited Goa Today magazine for several years and has worked in newspapers in Mumbai and Bangalore. His collection of short stories is forthcoming in 2019. He has lived in Goa since 1985.
Copyright © 2020 Manohar Shetty.