The land where Isaac Pitman, shorthand inventor, is a god

Once, knowing Pitman shorthand was an essential skill for every secretary or journalist. Today fewer and fewer people feel the need to study the invention of this 19th century Englishman: but at the Stenographers' Guild in Chennai they still worship at his shrine.

CHENNAI, INDIA Ð Feb 22,2011: Students performing puja (worship) to the statue of Isaac Pittman, founder of shorthand at The Stenographers Guild Institute in Chennai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News. Story by Samanth Subramanian  
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CHENNAI // The entrances to many buildings in this southern Indian city are graced by small shrines, miniature temples, almost, to one or the other of the Hindu pantheon's gods and goddesses.

Among the most extraordinary of these sits in the courtyard of a building in the crowded neighbourhood of T Nagar. Resting on a plinth is a garlanded, foot-high bronze statuette of a lushly bearded 19th-century Englishman named Isaac Pitman.

The building houses the headquarters of the Stenographers' Guild, which explains the devotion to Pitman, a vegetarian and teetotaller who was knighted in 1894 and died aged 84 in 1897. In 1837, he developed the most widely used form of shorthand, a system of strokes, hooks, dots and squiggles, based on phonetics, which enabled stenographers to transcribe speeches with great speed and accuracy.

Since its founding in 1937, the guild has been training people in Pitman shorthand; at one time, no secretary or journalist could hope to work without mastering it. The guild's graduates went on to work in the private sector and in India's vast, intricate state bureaucracy, where large rooms would be set aside for them to transcribe their jottings into formal script. A star graduate of the guild could take dictation at more than 150 words a minute.

But as the use of computers has spread and as the practice of dictation has declined, the demand for stenographers in India has faded, particularly in business. SR Sivasubramanian, the guild's young treasurer, said: "When I was studying here in 1998, 75 people from the guild sat for the higher-grade exam. Now I don't even think that many people take the exam all across the state."



Mr Sivasubramanian's life is bound inextricably with the history of the guild. His father, SV Ramaswamy, held official posts within the guild, and his sacred-thread ceremony, a coming-of-age ritual for young Hindu boys, was conducted on the first floor of the guild's premises.

"I even met my wife here, when she was a student," Mr Sivasubramanian said with a smile. "She's now a faculty member here."

Between him and E Krishnamurthy, a retired stenographer in his late 70s, the glory days of shorthand are well remembered. "When I joined the guild, in 1964, this building was just two rooms, separated by a wooden screen," Mr Krishnamurthy said. "Then a two-storey structure came up, and each floor held 200 students at a time, and they all wanted to study shorthand."

Mr Krishnamurthy, whose personal speed record is an explosive 200 words a minute, worked with Siemens in Bangalore for nearly 30 years as a stenographer. Before he retired in the early 1990s, some demand for shorthand skills still existed. "We'd have a 600-page employment register, where job prospects were written down, and even in the late 1980s, these would get filled in 10 to 15 days," Mr Sivasubramanian said. "Now on a good day, I get maybe two or three calls asking for stenos."

The guild has survived, however, by pluckily reinventing itself and diversifying its activities. Only one guild student out of every five now chooses to study shorthand. The others attend typewriting or computer classes, which have been offered since the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, these classrooms are far more crowded than the shorthand seminars.

On a recent, sticky evening in a first-floor classroom that can hold 50 people, S Parasuraman was teaching only five students. With one eye on a watch to measure the pace of his words, Mr Parasuraman enunciated passages from an old technical examination paper. His wards scribbled furiously as he started to read: "Friends, we are meeting here today, to discuss the food situation."

For a couple of these students, proficiency at shorthand could improve their prospects for promotion in their government jobs. I Thangaswamy, a 45-year-old employee at the Tamil Nadu government's Directorate of Collegiate Education, learnt shorthand a decade ago. "But I was in a private company then, so my skills weren't really needed, and I got rusty," he said.

In Mr Thangaswamy's present job, though, passing an intermediate shorthand exam could convert his temporary position into a permanent one. Similarly, Vimal Singh, a clerk in the Madras High Court, could become a judge's assistant by passing his higher-grade exam.

The real rarity in Mr Parasuraman's small class is S Raja, a slender, bright-eyed high-school student who has chosen to learn shorthand instead of computer science. One consequence of India's information technology boom is that computer skills have become the most popular vocational training option in the cities.

Stenographers' salaries start at between 5,000 and 7,000 rupees (Dh410 to Dh570) a month, Mr Sivasubramanian estimated, "and these days, even a bad driver can make that much." A skilled computer technician can begin his career earning twice that amount. Mr Raja admitted that he would like to take computer classes, "but between school and shorthand, there's really no time." His aim, he said, was to use his shorthand skills to find a government job, which is perhaps just as well: the private sector's requirement for stenographers has dwindled to near zero.

When E Balaji started his career as a headhunter, around 1993, he still got occasional requests for stenographers. That trickle dried up by 1995 or 1996. Now Mr Balaji is the president and director of Ma Foi Randstad, a large human resources firm, and he does not remember "when we were last asked for shorthand even as a supplementary skill, let alone a stand-alone one. The concept of dictation has died. With computers, most people just prefer to draft their e-mails themselves, and secretaries have really become personal assistants, to co-ordinate meetings and travel and so on."

But even in the public sector, in government ministries and in the judiciary, the demand for writers of shorthand has shrunk. Perhaps the best example is found in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament in New Delhi.

For decades, the Lok Sabha was a hive of stenographers, who were required to transcribe not only the exchanges in the house but also the deliberations of 60-odd parliamentary committees. The work is often long on volume and short on time; the transcripts of one day's legislative proceedings need to be ready by 10pm that same evening, and the Lok Sabha's own statistical analysis reveals that its members talk "at speeds ranging between 120 and 150 words per minute. [S]ome of them go up to 180 words per minute and a few reach the speed of 180 to 200 words per minute."

One Lok Sabha official said that 24 out of 68 positions in the stenographers' pool have long remained vacant, with no effort being made to fill them. He said that the pool really needs 80 full-time stenographers to cope adequately with the Lok Sabha's work,

If the inclination at the top to hire is weak, the official added, the strength of the available candidates is equally dismal. Until a decade ago, stenographers were required to transcribe 180 words a minute to qualify for Lok Sabha positions. Then the requirement was dropped to 160 words.

"Now even that's becoming impossible to find," the official said. During the most recent recruitment drive, only one candidate could take down 160 words per minute. "Another chap just passed the 140 mark, so we had to hire him on the condition that he makes it to the 160-word mark within a year."

The official shook his head sadly: "Within two or three years, many of us will be retiring, and we're worried that the stenography department here will just become extinct."