Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Re-discovering Fountain Pens


The past some months have been very hectic, work at office keeps piling up, and its a similar story at home. Trust me, being married is like working on a second job, it just can't be neglected. As a part of some late-year house cleaning, I was re-arranging things at home when I opened some old shelves, and found a Parker fountain pen. It is a red bodied Vector with a piston for drawing ink, and was gifted to me by my father when he returned from Gulf two decades ago. Somewhere circa 1997~99. Made in UK, it says. And with it I got drawn once again to my fun filled school days.


A simple google turned up endless blog posts of nostalgia, kids who grew up in the 90s had a special place of the fountain pens, lovingly called the ink pen (ironical, every pen has ink, fountain or not ). I could see bloggers typing on and on about those days when you had to load your fountain pen with ink, the same way today people charge their phones before heading out to school or office. Writing instruments have gone down a one way street, and smart pens and voice-to-text converters are in use today. But I long for the days men were men and carried their own fountain pens proudly in their shirt pockets.

So here is how we progressed in school: from the kindergarten days (LKG,UKG) to about 4th grad (or 4th standard), we Indian students were equipped with the trusty pencil and sharpener (which we used to call the cutter). Then about 5th grade, we were trusted to start using pens. The cheapest pens in the market were the disposable ball-point pens, the most popular I think was the stick-eazy pen, which could be bought for 2 rupees back then.

But schools used to insist that a good student no-only required good grades, but also a good handwriting to go with it. A legible handwriting in the cursive style was the hallmark of the Oxford academia, they used to say.  And the best way one could achieve that was to write using a fountain pen, in plain white 'unruled' notebooks. The challenge was to write on plain paper in straight lines , which none of us could do except some of the girls in class. Most often , our writing would go obliquely across the page which we attempted to compensate in the next line, and fail again. We needed practice. So we were encouraged to buy good ink pens and practise writing with them in plain sheets. This opened up an arsenal of sorts, because unlike ball point pens, which were identical and everyone had the same ones, fountain pens were distinctive and different. You could either buy a cheap unheard of Indian company like Bismi, Camel, Camlin..or you could go all in and buy the coveted Cadillac of fountain pens : Hero, Parker & Sheffer.

The chinese brand Hero was specially coveted, because it was extremely light weight to use and even easier to refill ink, and had  a longer mileage. Plus spare parts were easily available and interchangeable from other pens of the same company, and the nib was , well. smooooth. It gave the smoothest writing on paper, and the ink dried instantly without smudges. It was very common for us students to carry our pens in the shirt pockets of our white uniforms, but we would also forget to remove it when we ran for the bus, causing the ink to spill onto our shirts. Apart from the regular stuff taught in school, we also learned Pen-engineering, removing and changing of the nibs, bending and forking the nibs to "correct" the ink flow, and experimenting with different brands of inks. Often our inks would run out during our class, so we would switch to the reserve ballpoint pen, and even un-luckier ones would find the ink in the ballpens have dried up. Then we would start borrowing inks from neighbours, by transferring ink from theirs to our pens ! We would carry a piece of cotton for these emergencies in our pencil boxes, yes they were still called pencil boxes, even when they did not have any pencils, and a small piece of chalk, which instantly absorbed any ink spilled in the box or on our clothes. The Parker fountain pens had a beauty of their own, small, simple design, and just heavy enough to stand out, but ink flow was heavier, and would smudge our writing in the cheap school provided answer sheets. And the ink would run out an hour after lunch break. The Hero pens on the other hand, with their friction caps and hooded nibs were better engineered (we thought) and wrote longer, in sleek lines.

The good days didn't last though. During our 10th standard board exams  we found that the  government provided answer sheets were of even lower quality, and thus played safe with the ballpoint pens. Somewhere around this time, the Gel-pen entered the Indian market, you could have the convenience of the ball point and the output of the fountain pen. You could leave in in your pocket when you ran, and it wouldn't spill ! Amazing ! By highschool  , we were all converts and adopted the ballpoints for all our scribbling. Life had turned fast, there was no spare time to waste on refilling inks every night, and our handwriting was either improved or in  a complete mess. The teacher didn't care, there were no marks for beauty on the test paper. The new weapon of choice ?, the Cello Gripper:

The last fountain pen I used was a maroon colored Hero , with a funny looking unhooded nib, which I used in first year of Engineering college. It was broken when it fell from my pocket and broke cleanly in half, where the suction mechanism met the nib. After that it was all ball point pens for me, and after entering the computer programming profession, the only time I used pens was to jot down a phone number or to fill in application forms.

Well, this Parker has come back my way, and I am trying to find reasons to start using it during work. The ball pen was designed for quick brisk writing, they say. The fountain pen is for more relaxed , laid back and flowing writing. Has to. It needs special care and time of its own, something the modern office worker has very little of.

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