The Write Stuff
Over the last five years or so, I have spent a small fortune on fountain pens. Few other expenditures have given me greater pleasure, or indulgences that have had a more civilizing effect. My passion for ink pens had a starting point in a minor feud (that continues to this day) with my father about whose handwriting was better, some 25 years ago. He is still nowhere close to accepting mine is better, but he always ensured I had the best tools, that he could afford, to take him on. In the mid-1980s in Nagpur, he scoured for me a squat, dark brown beauty made by a pen maker called Doctor.
It would really stand out in a crowd. Doctor’s nib was roughly twice the size of the comparatively effete Camlin pens my classmates had. The writing quality it produced was exceptional—smooth, yet the right amount of feedback (the resistance that you feel when putting pen on paper). Doctor pens became my constant companions in school till the time express instructions came in not to use ink pens for board exams. Subsequently, as priorities and passions shifted, as they usually do when you are in the late teens and early twenties, my little collection, and enthusiasm for pens dissipated. Fountain pens became increasingly difficult to find, and buy. Stationary shops didn’t stock them because no one wanted them. At the very best, a few shops would have Parker’s slim and plasticky Vector. Its overall inelegance apart, the Vector’s brushed steel neck is too slippery to use it for anything other writing a four-letter word, once a day. Fancier bookstores peddle expensive fashion accessories in the guise of fountain pens.
Also, I found there was increasingly little use for pens of any kind. Filling out cash withdrawal slips at the bank was about the only meaningful act of writing by hand. For journalistic writing there was the computer. Journalism also involved taking copious notes, and ballpens were deemed more reliable and better suited for the furious pace of that exercise. If you pay a little attention to the experience of using a ballpen, you will quickly realise that it is remarkably joyless. The pen, not your mind determines the pace and quality of the output. Fountain pens on the other hand slow you down a little bit and the resistance offered by the paper makes you more aware of what you are writing.
I’ll give you a tip. Even if you job involves the use of written word only to the extent of making Powerpoint presentations, spend ten minutes with a fountain pen and a good piece of bond paper before you start banging away at the keyboard. Write out the broad contours of your presentation. Chances are, you will find that the rough handwritten draft has more details than usual; the choice of words better; greater clarity; and as a result more persuasive. Also try sending friends, relatives or even clients handwritten notes, cards and letters. The receiver’s joy will be boundless. Inky fingers are worth the effort.
British novelist Philip Hensher in his recent book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why it Still Matters says: “Handwriting is what registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right. Yet at some point, the ordinary pleasures and dignity of handwriting are going to be replaced permanently.” It’s hard to disagree with him.
My love for fountain pens received a second wind some six years ago when my father excitedly phoned from Chennai and told me that he had found a tiny old shop Called Taj Pens in Mylapore. They had a box of Doctors that lied unsold for years. He had bought four, two apiece for each of us for about Rs 150—virtually the same price we’d paid 25 years ago. Not to be left behind, in Delhi where I then lived, I hunted down a couple of shops that sold that a surprisingly wide range of new and used pens such as Swans, Blackbirds and Pilots that I had drooled over when callow. Before I knew it, I had more than a dozen pens.
India is a surprisingly bountiful country for pen enthusiasts. There are plenty of good pen makers in the country, and you can buy sturdy, well-crafted pens for unbelievably low prices. When you are in Chennai, visit Gem and Co. at NSC Road in Parry’s Corner. The genial shop owner will rattle out the names of his A-list customers such as M Karunanidhi, and our current ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao, who also dabbles in poetry. He claims ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi’s trusted pen till date is a humble Wality 51 retailing at about Rs 50. Earlier this year Nirupama Rao spent nearly Rs 15000 on vintage pens including a Blackbird. And upon being convinced you are a serious collector, Gem’s proprietor will entertain you for hours taking you through his vintage collections even if you don’t buy as much as a bottle of ink. Gem’s specialty is the thick ebonite pens that have a woody, marbled finish and cost less than Rs 100.
The Wality brand pens are first rate and excellent value for money. It’s manufactured by Airmail Pen Company owned by the Mirchandani family out of a small workshop in Mumbai’s Vile-Parle. Their acrylic pen range called Wality 69 is quite popular among overseas collectors. The large transparent acrylic barrel can hold enough ink to last you two weeks of regular writing. The last time I bought one in Chennai, I paid Rs 70.
Interestingly, most fountain pens in India are handmade even today, adding a little more quaintness to the whole thing. According to Hari, an avid collector and a regular contributor to the online community Fountainpennetwork.com, each part the Wality pens are individually made one at a time by a worker. In a surreal post recounting his visit to the Airmail Pen factory he wrote: “During my visit, the fabrication of the 69 line of pens was going on. The barrel material arrives as thick sheets of transparent clear white acrylic. This sheet is cut into sticks of rectangular cross-section. These sticks are then cut into proper length for the barrel. Next the sticks are turned on a lathe to make them cylindrical. After this the inner bore for the ink cavity is drilled. The outside barrel end is then given a taper on the lathe, and also the inner threads for the section and outer threads for cap are cut. The threads are cut rather than tapped. The barrels undergo three stages of manual hand polishing including liquid lapping and final polishing on a rotary buffing disc to give a very smooth visual finish and feel in the hand.”
Ratnam sons based in Rajahmundry have a long history. Influenced by the Swadeshi movement KV Ratnam, the company’s founder made a pen using ebonite. He gave one of them to Gandhiji in 1935. Gandhiji, responded with a letter of appreciation which the family has proudly preserved. Since then, Ratnams became the pen of choice for Congressmen of that vintage. The Ratnam family continues to make high quality handmade pens and they are still much in demand. Their classic, jumbo-sized, steel nib pen costs around Rs 1700. Gold nib pens can go up to Rs 3500. You can send an email email@example.com for the latest catalogue. Ratnams usually respond in a couple of hours and can ship pens anywhere in the country. In fact Andhra Pradesh has plenty of pen makers, probably because of Ratnam’s influence. Go to the Deccan Pen Store in Hyderabad’s Abids area and you’ll know why. I picked up a couple made by a company called Onyx for about Rs 300 each. You will see that the parts are very well made, and the shapes elegant and precise. The nibs can be scratchy when new but the store assistants at Deccan are more than happy to fix the glitches.
In other parts of the world fountain pens are prohibitively expensive. Like luxury cars and watches fountain pens too signify status. The German Mont Blanc probably has the greatest brand recall among upper tier pens. But with prices going upwards of Rs 100,000 it’s more a piece of jewellery than a pen. Predictably enough, Indian markets are flooded with Chinese pens such as Baoer and Jihnao to name a few. I personally find them very chunky and difficult to carry for everyday use. But Hero, one of the oldest Chinese pen brands is an evergreen favourite. Heroes are extremely reliable (they rarely leak, or break), attractive and good value for money. For decades, Hero has copied the popular 1950s and 1960s models of American brands such as Sheaffer and Parker, and with using the famed Chinese process engineering prowess churned out sleek looking pens that cost next to nothing. As a rule of thumb I buy a Hero when I spot one.
But my current favourite by some distance is a Waterman Phileas I picked up at NR pens, a hole in the wall adjoining Regal Theatre in Delhi’s Connaught Place. To showcase its French heritage, Waterman in the 1990s introduced the model named after Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Waterman intended it to be a ‘beginner’s luxury’ pen priced at around $50 back then. There is nothing cut-price about this art-deco model with brass inlays and stylish two-tone nib. But sadly, the company doesn’t make them anymore. I use a medium nib, and the writing is delightfully smooth. There are few pens, irrespective of cost, that can hold a candle to Phileas. You can buy one on Ebay for close to $100. It me took much perseverance and resolute bargaining to prise a Phileas out of the NR Pens’ old Mr Makhija for Rs 1500.
Veteran collectors say it’s the Japanese who make the best pens in the world. Visit www.nakaya.org and you will know why. If I want to own one ultra-expensive pen it has to be a Nakaya. Nakaya is one of the many boutique Japanese pen makers that have taken the art of pen making to sublime heights. The designs range from the minimalistic to intricate Urushi and Maki-e lacquer artwork. The simplest Nakaya can set you back by $650. The pens are custom made and can’t be bought off the shelf. You can order online, by filling up a detailed questionnaire about your pen habits and handwriting. Nakaya’s expert pen makers use the information to make bespoke pens. The company’s website tersely warns that its store in Japan does not have any products available for sale. You need to get in touch with the managers 10 days in advance for a prospective purchase visit.
Brian Gray, the owner of Edison Pen, an acclaimed independent outfit in the US follows the same philosophy. Only, his creations are significantly cheaper than Nakaya with prices starting at $150. Gray writes in his website that the vast majority of pens sold at Edison are a custom creation between the client and himself. This means that you can pick your favourite model of pen and then decide your favourite material to have it made from, along with many other possible customisations.
If you ask me, the best gift that you can give yourself, and indeed your children is a lovely fountain pen. Use it to write at least one page a day. Make it a New Year resolution.