Friday, 24 October 2008

In Praise of the Stenographer


If you look back over the last 15 years or so, the stenographer as a species has totally vanished from the office scene. You do not see him anymore. The advent of the PC and the laptop, word-processing programmes with spell check features and the unblinking focus companies have brought to bear on headcount-related costs have all played their part in vanishing what was once the constant in any organisation chart.

One of the skills which I had to master quickly, when I started my career almost 25 years ago, was that of dictating a letter. It is a skill which forces you to think clearly, logically, and in paragraphs, for, it is not enough to just reel off what you want to say, you have to also call out the punctuation marks and the paragraph breaks to the stenographer as you dictate.

The dictionary definition of stenography is “the art or process of writing in shorthand”, but good stenographers did much more than just convert your words into little strokes and squiggles in their shorthand pad and reconstruct them without mistakes on their faithful Remington typewriters. The better stenographers could improve on your original draft by correcting grammatical mistakes and errors in syntax and by ruthlessly editing out verbiage and clumsy usage.

Right from the days of the British Raj I suspect, the monopoly for good stenography was held by the South Indian Brahmins of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. During the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of them, after passing their matriculation from small towns such as Kumbakonam and Palghat boarded trains to Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and other cities afar to make a living. What they had in addition to the matriculation certificate was a working knowledge of typewriting and shorthand learned at the friendly neighbourhood typewriting institute. Most of them found jobs in government and in large trading houses of that time and a good percentage of them rose up through the hierarchy by dint of their hard work and dedication and went on to occupy key positions in the very same organisations they first joined as a humble stenographer decades ago.

In the company I first joined, they had a “stenographers’ pool” which was almost fully populated by South Indian Brahmins. I still have fond memories of these colleagues finishing their home-cooked sambar rice or curd rice in double quick time and spending the next 50 minutes of the lunch time in quiet slumber in their chairs under the slowly-revolving ceiling fans.
Photo Courtesy: Roberrt's Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

10 comments:

Ravi said...

Lol, a good topic and here is what I remember when I think of the tamil Iyer stenographers from Palghat- the bag they carried - which inevitably was a yellow and stained bag of L.G.Perinkayam :-), which if memory serves me correctly is a Madras based firm.

Vijay said...

I remember a lot of stenos who were Anglo-Indian as well.. most were named Fiona...

As a kid I used to watch dad dictate his letters and was fascinated that his words were turned into squiggles (short hand) and then a typed letter...

They were quite fast as well...

Thiruvengadam said...

Thanks for reminding me of that bygone era of type-writing. In the past your CV was considered to be incomplete if you do not have good typing skills...both lower & higher. It was literally mandatory to go to a typing institute once you pass high school.

Sadly the art of typing with the right fingers for the right alphabets seems to be vanishing fast. With the ambush of PC's everyone seems to have mastered the art by typing using one or two fingers (like I do while posting this comment!)

Vatsa said...

Typewriter classes and Short hand were a must, (something before the Computer classes in the mid 90's) in my grand parents house. All of my father's siblings new typewriting and short hand, except him which was of a big concern to my Grand parents. Wonder what college kids or school kids learn from classes outside school these days, maybe there are a lot of other opportunities and classes like these are really not a necessity any more. Vatsa

Rada said...

@Ravi: I do recall the ubiquitous yellow cloth bag very vividly!

@Vijay: Anglo-Indian stenographers. You are correct even though I would like to think of them as the second wave, the first one being of course, the South Indian brahmins! :-)

@Manohar: Come to think of it, I am also typing my blog posts with two fingers, even though I have become quite adept at it now!

@Vatsa: Thank you for visiting and for your comment!

Santosh said...

Remington, Halda, Olympia, Godrej Prima and more. I love that cling note of the return lever :)Good one Rada

Meena said...

Brought back memories of my typewriting class!As Vatsa pointed out, it was a useful skill to acquire;only problem was, I spent many years typing out official papers for my father first,later for my husband!I agree with Santosh about the cling of the return lever, I loved it!

Australopithecus said...

One doesn't see typing institutes anymore, even in the smaller towns.
They used to be all over the place when i was a kid (which i'd like to believe wasn't THAT long ago)

Rada said...

@Santosh: Ah! The cling of the return lever! Had quite a ring of finality, don't you think?

@Meena: Thank you!

@Austra: Going by your picture, it's difficult for me to guess your age! :-)

Velayudhan said...

I too started asdfgf :lkjhj and after two months stopped the classess due to regular graduate classess. Still i use all eight fingers with reduced efficiency.

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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.