Human Interest
The Fort Technical Institute began operations in 1919, and will be in operation for a century come May 12.
Subramonia Iyer (standing right) and Madhavankutty with typewriting students

Two young women walk towards the desk in front, a small bundle of papers in their hands, freshly typed up. VK Madhavankutty takes it as he runs his eyes over the others in the room. There are 20 typewriters there, nearly all of them clacking — keys being pressed and levers being pushed. It’s another Monday at the Fort Technical Institute in Thiruvananthapuram, where Madhavankutty is the manager.

Next to him sits H Subramonia Iyer, the principal of the institute, with a bunch of invitation cards in his hands for a big event on May 12. He is celebrating the centenary of the institute, one that his grandfather Appu Iyer opened in 1919.

“He was then working at the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram,” says Subramonia, now 62 years old. Appu opened a typewriting institute in the Fort area not for himself, but for his widowed sister-in-law, Ponnu Ammal, as a way for her to earn an income. Ponnu Ammal ran the Fort Technical Institute with two typewriters in a two-storey building. A hundred years later, the building still stands, with 20 typewriters in place of two. Computers never pushed the institute out of business but only helped it grow.

“You ask if the interest in typewriters had come down in the years after the computer came into our lives. It never did. They need the keyboard practice; most jobs would need you to type fast. Another reason is several courses and the KGTE (Kerala General Technical Education) exams would require typewriting certificates,” Subramonia says.

Madhavankutty then shows applications of the students coming for the classes – M.Com, B.Tech, MA, B.Sc and other degree holders. “Engineering students may not get jobs soon, and so, they try to get government jobs as typists or stenographers. Data entry jobs will want you to type 8000 characters in one hour. Medical transcription too requires fast typing skills,” Subramonia says.

Another observation he makes is that computers bring with them a lot of malpractice as documents can easily be tampered with, and letters edited. “You can’t do that on typewriters.”

What has remained constant through the years is that it is largely young women and girls who come to learn to type, just like in the movies of the 80s.

But for almost 50 years, the institute was teaching typing only in English. The first Malayalam typewriter came into being in 1970, and since then, they’ve been teaching typing in Malayalam as well. However, it was still a problem till in 1978, the Dr Bhaskaran Nair Committee brought in the uniform keyboard.

In the institute are typewriters from Halda, Olivetti, Remington Rand and Facit. The original two typewriters are long gone, they could not be protected from rust. Years after opening the institute for Ponnu Ammal, Appu Iyer took charge when he retired from his government job. Those were days when typewriting institutes were there only in the capital, Subramonia says. “So there were students coming from far off places, outside the city.”

In 1959, one of Appu Iyer’s grandsons, S Harihara Iyer, took over. He too had a government job and came to the institute in the mornings and evenings. After his time, Subramonia, another one of Appu Iyer’s grandsons, became the principal. “I was 15 when I began working here, it’s been 47 years now," Subramonia says.

Madhavankutty joined as the institute’s manager in 1962. That was the year shorthand classes became more popular. “That’s because we got a new instructor – D Sankaranarayana Iyer – who brought new techniques with him,” he says.

It was around the time that two systems of shorthand had been developed – the Pandala system and the Arul system. Following a court battle, the Arul system won, and it was taught at the Fort Technical Institute.

Today, there are about 150 typewriting institutes across the city, Subramonia reckons. And that’s a sign that typewriting is nowhere close to being extinct. The clicks and clacks will go on for a long while.