How digitisation has silenced the typists on their Remingtons outside Calcutta High Court

Once ubiquitous outside the Calcutta High Court, today only around 25 typists operate on the footpath outside the Court. But with increasing digitization, they too will soon fade away.

Sheikh Serafat Hussain is a 70-year-old typist who operates from the footpath outside the Calcutta High Court. Even as the court premises teem with litigants and lawyers, Hussain, who has been sitting outside the high court for over 40 years, finds ample time to talk to visitors over a cup of tea or go for a casual amble during the court’s working hours.

Hussain is the last of the typists who were once ubiquitous outside the high court, typing out people’s petitions and other documents needed by litigants at the court. “We typists belong to a bygone era that will eventually fade away,” said Hussain. “We hardly get any work nowadays. Digitization has given us computers but has snatched the livelihood from several thousands of people who made a living providing a service that is considered outdated in modern times.”

Hussain recently earned the distinction of being the oldest typist outside the court after his colleague Debi Prasad Chakraborty, 75, died of a heart attack a few days earlier. The 70-year-old says he would have quit long ago, but the responsibility of having to take care of his ailing wife has forced him to continue.

Today, only around 25 typists operate on the footpath outside Gates E and F of the High court sitting under polythene sheets supported by weak bamboo sticks that provide little cover from sun or rain. They describe a recent notification by the High Court as the final nail in the coffin of their livelihood. In its order dated Feb 18, 2020, the court directed that all pleadings contained in petitions, affidavits and applications or otherwise and all memorandum of appeal shall be printed on A4 white executive bond paper instead of green or embossed paper. The court also fixed the size and space to be used in the paper while writing the documents.

The typists’ workstations outside the High Court in Kolkata. Pic: Gurvinder Singh

The judgment will adversely impact several hundreds of typists working outside various courts in West Bengal. “The format fixed by the court doesn’t match the dimensions of the typewriters,” said D N Bhattacharya, 58, who has been a typist outside the court since 1989. “The court though has permitted the use of typed legal documents provided they follow the new regulations. But the long-term aim is to digitize everything and go for e-filings”.

The good old days

Bhattacharya had, in fact, left a well-paid job in a private firm to become a typist as it brought lucrative returns in those days, “When I began my business here, there were nearly 80 typists and we used to charge 40 paisa per page for typing and 10 paisa for carbon copy (duplicate),” said Bhattacharya “We used to arrive at 8 am and work even after the court closed for the day. Sometimes, we had to type under candle light because of the high work load. We earned around Rs 300-400 per day in those days.  The entire footpath was lined with typists. Today, it is difficult to make Rs 40 per day even after sitting for 8-10 hours. We charge Rs 10 for original copy and Rs 1 for the carbon copy. But who types duplicate copy nowadays? The few customers who give us work get one copy typed and photocopy as needed.”

As a result, even as the typists vanish, several photocopy and computer printing shops have mushroomed outside the High Court in recent years.

Madhusudan Majhi. Pic: Gurvinder Singh

Madhusudan Majhi sits just a few tables away from Bhattacharya. The 68-year-old travels for over three hours every day to reach his place of work from his village in East Midnapore district of Bengal. He wakes up at 3 am, leaves home by 6 am to be in place before the court opens. “I have to bicycle for half-an hour to reach the nearest railway station for catching a Kolkata bound train,” said Majhi. “I return home by around 8 pm. The routine has remained unchanged for the past four decades. But all that my ordeal fetches me is just Rs 50-60. The High Court is no more a place to conduct business but a shelter house for senior citizens like us who have nowhere to go”.

Even at this ripened age, their fingers do not wobble while punching the keys on their old and rusty Remington typewriters, which despite their age, work without any glitch. During the good years, Majhi and his ilk have typed petitions, affidavits, caveats and other court documents in English.

Only memories remain

Gopal Saha, 64, fondly remembers the days when they typed letters to VVIPs and VIPs while their customers waited patiently for hours for their work to be done. “I still remember people sending letters to the President, Prime Minister, Chief Minister and other important dignitaries after getting them typed from us,” said Saha. “Most of our clients came from far flung districts and could speak nothing other than Bengali. Some of them also shared their family issues with us while waiting. We developed a bond with them. But those things have vanished in the days of Twitter when you need just a few seconds to share your message with anybody. The old world charm is lost.”

Lawyers at the court describe the typists as an ‘endangered species,’ which would soon be extinct. “They need to be protected but some people regard them as obstructionist relics of the past who are blocking a thoroughfare,” said Surajit Basistha, a senior advocate in his sixties practising since 1982. “We would sit for hours with them chatting over tea while they did our work. But those days are gone.”

A section of lawyers, however, also blame the inordinate delay in the judicial system over typists losing business, “Several thousands of cases are pending in the courts for years. The delay upsets the litigants who after some point of time lose interest and do not come to pursue their cases anymore. It leads to a fall in the filing of legal documents. The court should expedite the proceedings,” pointed out Rafiqul Islam (56), a lawyer practising for over 25 years.

As the rays from the setting sun disappears behind India’s oldest court, the clickety clack of the typewriters also fall silent and the struggle for survival comes to an end, at least for the day and with little hope that life would be any better the next morning.

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