Last of the legal typists at Hulftsdorp | Sunday Observer

Last of the legal typists at Hulftsdorp

For decades the learned members of the legal fraternity have made Colombo 12 their stronghold as the esteemed Supreme Court and other Courts are established around this area. It is a common sight to see lawyers crossing the roads, files in hand.

However, the men who used typewriters to type various documents for clients outside the court premises seem to have vanished with modern technology.

With the advent of computers the once dominant typewriter has been relegated to the past in the administrative realms of Sri Lanka, although it is still found in some government departments and a few police stations. As a child I have seen old men seated in the shadow of All Saints Church, resting against wooden tables on which stood their typewriters. They typed with speed and the gentle clatter of the typewriter as the keys pressed against the ribbon was a familiar sound to all who passed by. It is a nostalgic flashback of old Ceylon.

I made my way to this area on Friday morning. The roads were busy as lawyers, policemen and prison guards went about their daily routines. I walked towards the Anglican Church, in the earnest hope of talking to these dear old men. The pavement where they had sat was empty. I noticed a blue carbon imprint on the cream painted wall, the only evidence that they had been here once. Passing the courts complex I ventured in search of these typists. Modern shops with digital typing and printing services were found at regular intervals.

After a few minutes I heard the once familiar clatter of the manual typewriter. Its sound guided me to the large bo-tree roundabout. A man wearing black rimmed spectacles was typing steadily with zest. I stood silently until he finished. He looked up assuming I wanted an affidavit. K. Jayasiri is an amiable man with the disposition of a schoolteacher. He explained, “I am now 78 years, son. I am from Dodanduwa. After I left school I was advised to learn typing, which I did in 1958. However, later, I found a job in the CTB head office. After I retired from the CTB I came here with my typewriter, and have been here for 18 years. I begin work by 8.30 am and leave at 3.30 pm as I have to get back to Athurugiriya. There were many seniors here in the past, but the computer has taken them out of the system”. He then placed both hands on the old typewriter fondly and continued, “I can do this maybe for another two years. Who can predict the future?”

The scorching midday sun seemed to dominate Hulftsdorp which encouraged the king coconut sellers to attract passers by to quench their thirst with the cool water. After walking for about 15 minutes the second typist was spotted, seated in the verandah of a legal office. I stepped in and introduced myself.

The old gentleman behind the desk eyed me with exasperation, and then relaxed when I assured him that it would take only a few minutes. At 70 years, G. Rajah is a man with lots of life and vigour, supplemented by a sense of humour. He asked, “Am I going to be on the front page? I travel to Hulftsdorp from Modera. I am a retired employee and have been doing this for the last 12 years.

Today, everyone uses the computer. But some continue to come to us. We have the advantage of knowing the English language and type with accuracy.” He continued, “We charge 500 rupees for a deed. If it is typed on the computer they charge 1,000 or 1,500 rupees. It’s a matter of choice”. As I continued my search for these clerical relics, I was accosted by a clerk named Wasanthi who was curious about the happenings. Grasping my quest young Wasanthi obliged to take me to another office where she says the senior most lady typist could be found. Seated beside a large photo copy machine a lady attired in saree was inserting an A4 sheet into the typewriter. She looked up and said, “I type in Sinhalese, how can I help you sir”? Premalatha has been at Hulftsdorp for 30 years.

She reminisced, “Back then we were very much in demand. People would wait patiently until we filled up the documents. We used to charge 20 or 30 rupees per page. We had good business then, but times have changed. I myself realized the need to stay with the current trend and learnt to operate the computer a few months ago. So now I can use both, the typewriter and the computer,” she said with an air of accomplishment. Premalatha is 58 years, and travels to Colombo from Piliyandala. She too says she will continue for maybe another two years.

Hoping to find one more typist I stood up and gazed ahead. An observant three wheeler driver said, “Sir, walk down this lane there is an old guy named Upali. He is a senior man. You must talk to him”. Thanking the man I found my way down an alley lined with legal offices and sworn translators. I was shown an empty wooden desk and stool. Next door a lady named Deepika was attending to some clerical work, and asked me to wait. After nearly 30 minutes a bearded gentleman looking more like a sage walked in and eyed me with profound suspicion. He evaded direct eye contact.

Talkative Deepika told him, “Uncle he is from the media, he wants to talk to you”. The old gent smiled, “I am just coming from Mawanella. I am tired, and am going to have my tea”. With this short volley of words uttered with the speed of typing, he waved and vanished into the crowded pavement. Deepika was mildly embarrassed and said, “He is like that. He may come after lunch”.

Thus perhaps, the last four manual typists of Hulftsdorp seemed to sustain their old skill, with varying temperance. They have made a silent contribution in dispensing justice. The ink infused clatter of the Remington, Adler, Imperial, Royal and Olympia typewriters will soon dwindle into oblivion. 

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