IN the heart of Rawalpindi, originally a military garrison, in the old commercial area of Saddar, once stood the Departmental Club to cater to the benefit of lower-ranking military personnel — the pre-Partition British military being, as it was, unforgiving in its tiered system.
The Departmental Club was one of the several evocative architectural relics of history in this area until the march of time took its inevitable toll. Some three decades ago, the plot of land upon which it stood changed hands, commercial constraints took over, and the building was pulled down to make way for a rabbit-warren of small shops that would serve current needs. Today, as in several historically commercial city areas in the country, the grandiose ‘old’ has made way for the new. The block houses small computer and electronics repair shops, an odd eatery or two, and is fronted on main Rawalpindi Bank Road by familiar branded concerns.
Behind the current facade, though, still stands one proud establishment that steadfastly keeps alive the reality of modernity being anchored in the past. This is the Al-Maqsoom Typewriters’ Sale and Service Centre, that I came upon through pure chance (Google search) when I rescued from the garbage heap an old typewriter that needed servicing (and saving).
The spry gentleman who runs the concern is Mr Tahir Ghaznavi, now touching 60, and whose father Ibadullah Khan sowed the seeds of this business in 1949, having at the time of Partition moved to ’Pindi from the family hometown of Jalandhar, India. Then associated with the agency Typewriter Traders (a Lahore-based concern since pre-Partition times), the senior gentleman was the first in Rawalpindi’s Saddar area to set up a similar concern in the private sector. At the time, there was reportedly only one other business of the type in the area, and that concerned itself with general stationary.
For the elder Mr Khan, this was a business opportunity that served the needs of the time. But for his son, Mr Ghaznavi, it was to prove a life-long romance that earns for him satisfactory dividends. Satisfaction, after all, certainly is not financial alone: labours of love, of interest, of fascination — matters close to the heart — have meaning.
Notwithstanding his background (his family sent many a son into government service), Mr Ghaznavi found his inspiration in 1982 with the typewriter business. Having not been formally trained as a typewriter technician, he calls it a “hobby”; but it is fair to read into his modest assertion a calling.
Reminiscing about the heyday of the typewriter times, Mr Ghaznavi recalls that back in the late ’60s, the concern (basement, ground floor / mezzanine, and first floor), used to employ three technicians with two apprentices working in the shop, full time. Work was so hectic that there was often no time for lunch, with a rota of staff-members going round to organisations every day to address typewriter concerns — servicing, ribboning, etc. Such clients included newspaper offices, for example.
Today, there are no on-staff technicians. Even so, apparently even in the modern world — charmingly fitting and proper — there is room yet for typewriters. Mr Ghaznavi gives the examples of fora such as the Ministry of Defence and airport Customs’ Clearing Agents (where the constitution of the paper itself is a closely guarded ‘secret’, he says) and forward army units that have no access to electricity. The fates having been relatively kind on him, such as owning the 15’ x 25’ shop that would otherwise cost some Rs60,000 per month in rent, he is still able to earn a living off his ‘hobby’.
Business now is only 5 to 10 per cent of what it used to be, says Mr Ghaznavi. Yet, because it interests him, most of the repair work that comes to the business concern is handled by him personally. When in need, though, he can call upon a limited group of typewriter mechanics / technicians that he has kept in touch with — gentlemen who started in the field decades ago at the cusp of the computer age, when that generation was in its early ’20s. They all had to go on to work in other fields, says Mr Ghaznavi, but they maintain an interest.
Of Mr Ghaznavi’s collection, a place of pride is reserved for a mid-’50s ‘running-style typewriter’, manufactured by Admira and notable because it produces cursive writing. The oldest typewriter he has dates from 1909 — still running smooth as silk and a pleasure to handle. These and some 30 other such pieces are dear to Mr Ghaznavi to the extent that when a filmmaker approached him to borrow vintage props for a film on Jinnah, the former refused to lend them out and the scenes were instead shot on location — where the machines were safe.
Now, Mr Ghaznavi observes, typewriters are acquiring vintage value — perhaps something similar to LPs (long-playing records) that are seeing a comeback. “Maybe not in my lifetime,” he says, “but this field will see a revival. Tech now moves so fast, the machines become obsolete almost as soon as they’re purchased. But a typewriter is simple, and therefore lasts forever — can be relied on forever.”
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2021