Chryselle D'Silva Dias is a freelance writer based in Goa, India. She has written for Time, the BBC, VICE, Marie Claire India, and Guardian Weekly, among others. Visit her at www.chryselle.net.
A small repair shop in Panjim has tinkered with the machines for over four decades.
Erasmo Coutinho, 68, is sitting by a window in his shop, reading a newspaper. The narrow room is full of old typewriters, cyclostyling machines, and a tidy wooden cupboard stocked with neatly arranged bits and bobs. A cheerful curtain with brown flowers sways in the breeze. There are no customers.
For over forty years, Coutinho has managed Rosmos, a tiny shop in Panjim, Goa’s capital city, that repairs all sorts of typewriters and calculating machines. The shop was started by his brother Rosario; Rosmos is a portmanteau of their names.
The Portguese colonized Goa in 1510; it was annexed into independent India in 1961. In the intervening decades, Coutinho has watched the state change from a hippie hideout to one of India’s most popular tourist spots.
Over time, Coutinho has also seen the machines’ ubiquity wane. “Until a few years ago, we used to be very busy,” Coutinho says. At one point, the store was handling over 2,000 machines each month, and Coutinho had four employees to help with repairs. “Everybody had typewriters,” he says. “Schools, offices, government [agencies], courts—they all needed sales and servicing.”
Now, there are a few varieties sitting in the shop. There’s a German Erika typewriter which seems to move rather smoothly. A standard grey Godrej Prima, one of the most popular models around, and a Remington 76 compete for shelf space. Several others lie under tables, covered with dust-sheets to protect them.
Before the Godrej models, popular foreign brands like Remington, Underwood, and Olivetti dominated the Indian market with imported or assembled machines. The Godrej company pioneered the first Indian-made typewriter in 1955. The idea was introduced in 1948, but the project was put on hold so the company could manufacture ballot boxes for independent India’s first general election held in 1951-52. This manufacturing milestone also made India the first Asian produce indigenous typewriters—a huge achievement for industry.
In a country where over a billion people now have access to a mobile phone, documents typed with fading ribbon and carbon paper underneath are an increasing oddity. Godrej and Boyce stopped manufacturing typewriters in 2009. Some of their leftover stock was kept for archival purposes, and the rest was turned into a piece of contemporary art by the Californian artist Jeremy Mayer, who fabricates sculptures exclusively out of typewriter parts held togther with springs and screws. Mayer used over 60 typewriters to build a 13.5-foot-tall lotus and three mandalas, which are on display at the Godrej lab, an events space and archive in Mumbai.
The manufacture of typewriters in India might have come to a halt, but in Goa, as in the rest of the country, there are plenty of machines still going clackety-clack. Government-run offices, village schools, and other rural administrative offices still use typewriters for work such as drawing up contracts or bills, Coutinho says.
Local courts have moved on to using computers but insist that job applicants have a certificate from a typing institute that qualifies them to type at a certain word-per-minute pace. The irony is that there are very few typing schools left, as the number of people interested in learning how to type with both hands has dwindled drastically as computer skills are more prized among employers. “You will find typing schools in small towns or rural areas, but not anymore in cities like Panjim,” says Coutinho.
Coutinho also used to fix cyclostyling machines—stencil-based duplicators—which have similarly been rendered obsolete. “Cyclostyle machines were very popular in schools but they’re now impossible to repair as the ink is just not available anymore,” says Coutinho. Instead, photocopying machines have replaced most cyclostyles.
In its heyday, Rosmos’ annual turnover was between 600,000 and 800,000 rupees ($8,900 to $11,867 USD in today’s dollars). Today, the shop sees around 200 typewriters being serviced annually. “Since they are not used much, they don’t need major repairs,” says Coutinho.
In addition to the odd office repair, Coutinho caters to customers’ heirloom objects. He points to a typewriter that is under a table. “This one belongs to an elderly man who used to be an English-to-Urdu translator,” Coutinho says. “He doesn’t work anymore, but for sentimental reasons, his son has repaired three of his typewriters already.”
The rapidly dwindling business doesn’t faze Coutinho. “Tourists often pass by and stop, delighted to find a shop like this,” he says.“They show the machines to their children, because the young ones have never seen them before.” As long as he’s healthy and bringing in enough income to make ends meet, Coutinho says he’ll keep the shop open.“As long as I’m able to,” he says,“I will be here.”