In April 2016, I was watching the movie Tintin with my seven-year-old daughter, when she pointed to a typewriter on the screen and asked, “What’s that?” Once in a while, in the humdrum of daily life, moments such as these take us back to forgotten times. The last typewriter I had seen was 17 years ago, when I had applied for a government job exam. During the evaluation, our typing speed was tested on a typewriter.
Following the conversation with my daughter, I set out in search of a typewriter. However, it proved to be more difficult to find than I had anticipated. Three days after I had first started looking for a typewriter, a friend told me that there are two things I would find for certain outside any court in India: a big banyan tree and typists sitting underneath it with their typewriters.
Excited, I made my way to the district court in my hometown—Cooch Behar, a small district in northern West Bengal—at around 9 am one early April morning. Upon reaching there, I was surprised to find the typewriters unattended under a banyan tree, covered with plastic bags. Within the next 30 minutes, the court premises was full of advocates, notaries, clerks, attorneys, and other black-coat professionals. A local tea-shop owner, who ran his shop within the area, told me that the small court had around seven typists.
The clang of the typewriter is a vital cog in the functioning of the Indian judicial system. The typists draft documents for the advocates and the litigants. I asked Mukul Kinnar, a senior typist who has worked in the Cooch Behar district court for over 25 years, whether computers were replacing typewriters. “The typewriter may have lost the battle for relevance across different other sectors against the computers, but for judiciary work, there is no replacement for typewriters,” he said.
In October 2016, I went to the district court in Dinhata, a small town on the outskirts of Cooch Behar. The typists at the court told me that a significant amount of their work revolved around typing affidavits, agreements, and lease deeds. For this, they said, they usually earned around Rs 100–150 per day. A few typists, such as Bijon Roy, even had Bengali-script typewriters for those who needed to print their documents in Bengali. Ratan Dey, a typist who has been working in the Dinhata court for over 22 years, said that he drafted affidavits and land purchase agreements. According to Khagen Das, another typist in the court, Dey is regarded as one of the most experienced typists within the court. An advocate who was present when I was speaking to Dey said that, at times, even advocates consulted him. The advocate said that because of Dey’s experience, he knew the general trajectory that cases would follow, and young advocates would often ask Rey for his advice.