In Goa’s capital, Panaji, on Rua São Tomé, not far from the main post office, is a shop that offers packaging services. For a small fee, they will wrap your parcel in a sheet of muslin sewn with precise stitches to protect its contents from being damaged in the post.
It started as a sideline to the main business of the store, but now it is the main earner for Luis Francisco Miguel de Abreu as he struggles to maintain one of the last typewriter repair shops in this Indian state.
Inside the shop, several typewriters sit in various states of repair, looking much like museum pieces. There is a Hermes, a Remington and a Godrej Prima, from the Indian manufacturer that was the last company in the world to make typewriters.
Abreu, 78, sits in a chair surrounded by paperwork, spare parts and memories. His father, Domingos Abreu, was employed by the US typewriter manufacturer Remington Rand in Mumbai before he moved back to Goa and started his own servicing and repair firm in 1938.
“My older brother wanted to study engineering and there were no schools or colleges here, so he had to go to Portugal,” says Abreu. “You needed good marks and money. I could have also gone but I stayed back to study and help my father in the shop.”
When his father opened the shop, Goa was still controlled by Portugal, which colonised the territory in 1510 and held power until 1961. “We moved here, to this location, I think, in 1953,” says Abreu. “At that time there was nothing here. We had one muddy road here with horses and bullock carts. There was one restaurant selling rice, curry and vegetables, no fish.”
Today the state is a busy tourist destination, where there is a trendy restaurant or fish curry joint on every street and selfies being taken at every colourful doorway.
In December 1961, the last ship left Goa for those who wanted to return to Portugal after it was annexed by the Indian military and the state became part of the republic. “We got the news that the João de Lisboa [a Portuguese warship] had come and whoever wants to go [to Portugal] can go,” says Abreu. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to leave my establishment and my father.”
The shop, named Domingos Abreu after Abreu’s father, was the bustling go-to place for typewriter sales and repairs. “All the big mining companies – the Dempos, the Chowgules – the government departments, even the military: they all came here,” says Abreu, “But business has stopped now.”
Typewriters were once the backbone of India’s famed bureaucracy. From government offices to law courts, they were the essential symbol of modernisation in independent India.
Typing and shorthand schools churned out thousands of graduates ready to take on secretarial work. Some of these still exist in rural areas, teaching shorthand along with keyboard skills for computers. “I feel it was a mistake to close the institutes,” says Abreu. “If they had remained open, things might have been different. Many people tell me that our children can’t type fast – they’re typing with one finger; the speed is just not there.”
In the Goan town of Ponda, Milagres D’Costa, 70, has been running D’Costa Commercial Institute since 1977. He offers classes in shorthand and typing for computers and manual typewriters; he has no takers for the latter. “Nobody wants to learn on typewriters now,” he says.
While brands such as Remington and Olivetti were popular in India, Godrej & Boyce made India’s first locally produced typewriters from 1955 until 2011, when the increasing reach of mobile phones and computers made that part of the business obsolete. The lack of new typewriters and spare parts, however, has not dampened the enthusiasm of those who love the sound of the keys. Abreu still gets requests to repair and service machines, and the business enjoyed an increase in customers after the first Covid lockdown was lifted in Goa.
The state is now in a second partial lockdown, which means the workshop is closed. Abreu says Covid has been “a boon and a bane” for his business.
“Everyone was cleaning things during the lockdown and we got several machines to look at,” says Natasha, Abreu’s daughter, who helps out at the shop. “We get clients from all over the country. Many are tourists who come across our shop while walking around. They go home and bring back vintage typewriters that they want to use or keep as showpieces.”
We get clients from all over the country. Many are tourists who come across our shop while walking around
But there is little profit in typewriters. “To secure the dealership of one large company I lost a lot of money,” says Abreu. “The company took a deposit from me but they have now disappeared. There is no refund, nothing.”
Spare parts are also difficult to find, and Abreu’s fading eyesight and other health issues make repairs tricky. “I can do basic repairs,” says Natasha. “Things like changing the ribbon and oiling the parts. The rest is a little more intricate for me to do.” A local man, Anton Rebello, has also been trained to make some repairs.
The parcel service is now the main earner. “What else could we do?” says Abreu. “There were no sales or service [work] so we started packaging. It was a good business at the beginning, but now they have introduced new rules, which mean you have to go to the post office, show what is in the package, declare it for customs, and then stitch and seal the package in their presence. My daughter does that work now.”
But the future is uncertain. “I am only one Luis Abreu. How long can a person continue? As long as the main door is open, I will have to do it. I prefer to go till the end.”