Thursday, July 27, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 11: Fountain Pens and Fingers Stained by Ink

There used to be a time when your fingers always remained stained throughout the academic year. You were exactly eleven years old and that was when your teachers and parents allowed you to use fountain pens. The stain on your fingers was always that of the ink because in those good old days the pens were ink pens. Use and throw pens were yet to be invented and Tendulkar had not yet become a star who could surprisingly tell the young kids of the time to use ball point pens rather than bats! Amitabh Bacchan hardly wrote his scripts and songs but he too advertised stylish Parker pens which we never got a chance to use in the school days. The other stains that we used to get were those created by saps of mangoes and cashew nuts and along the way we found out that our undergarments were stained by strange fluids. We knew how to hide those stains cleverly; also we were successful in hiding the stains that had befallen on our innocence. Still we did not know how to hide those indelible stains on the finger tips. On the last day of the school final examinations, we, the then children emptied the left over ink in those pens on the friends, their faces, hands, shirts and skirts in pure mirth and a lot of expectation thinking that they all would remember us forever. They too did the same; times changed, we grew, new friends came in, new life happened. Moreover new pens came that never leaked.

The word ‘leaking’ had a special space in the vocabulary of the school children. We never worried much about the absence of some girls for a couple of days every month. We never got curious why the girls occasionally developed stomach ache and were sent back home accompanied by another embarrassed girl. We never thought a great deal about why they fainted in the morning hours as they stood under the morning sun for the school assembly where the headmaster admonished and advised us to be the better citizens for the future of the country. But we definitely worried about the word leaking as we saw many a pocket were seen stained by blue ink and many a cane were turned into threads. Cane the kids as much as you could, what would they do if the pens were just leaking as if the ink in them was so curious to jump out than remain there and help the kids in writing. The ink, fortunately was washable though the faint colour remained there throughout the night only to be renewed in the evening. The leaking of ink was caused by badly produced pen. Besides, for the children an ink pen was a thing of wonder; as they were not having enough things to look at other than girls who refused to look at the boys’s side, things of curiosity were simply the hapless fountain pens and the instrument boxes, which cracked a cackling sound followed by a shattering of frail plastic instruments all over as children struggled to open them by force.

In the pre-global economy of the country, or the nationalised economy of the country, we did not have many things to choose from. Everything came as pairs, even friends and enemies were in pairs. You had a best friend and you always walked with him or her. Your film stars were also two. The cars that you counted were also in two. There was always a cheerful Fiat to balance the seriousness of an Ambassador. Inquilab had Zindabad to go with it; so was the case of TATA, Birla never left the trail. When it came to the large vehicles we either sided with TATA or Ashok Leyland. As we were so ignorant of the larger games of economics, even somebody said Tata as a part of taking leave we subconsciously chimed in ‘Birla’. In those days when everything came in pairs (yes, how can I forget the good old Bata accompanied by Carona?), the inks too came in pairs. Bril was the best ink around. Camel was a rare ink. But to give competition to Bril then came Chelpark. But Chelpark was costlier than Bril so we mostly settled for the latter. Someone using Chelpark ink was looked at with some amount of envy. And those who used Chelpark ink had better pens, mostly important from the Middle East countries.

In the leaking pens club we had two major players and their names were Jubilee and Bismie respectively. Considering the percentage of leakage, I could definitely say they were neck to neck. Thinking of it, I still do not know what made our loyalties defined. Why did someone choose Bismie over Jubilee? I don’t know. What I could say is that the factor must have been the price. If Bismie was five rupees, Jubilee must be five rupees fifty paise. Fifty paise counted a lot. When I read Gandhiji and Vinoba ji and their efforts to develop an economy based on spinning Khadi, I come across this astonishing figures like 8 annas which is equal to fifty paise within which families lived as that was the maximum a spinner could earn in those days (today spinners in the cricket fields earn better than the best paid administrative officers in the government departments). Anyway, fifty paise mattered a lot then and we settled for Jubilee and some for Bismie. As you understand from the names, they were purely desi pens. Compared to the evolution of guns, these pens could be developed to those good old guns in which the users manually filled the gun powder and triggered. These were called fountain pens. Then another development happened; pens with fillers appeared. But they were imported ones. Then came the pens with refilling cartridges. One could simply compare these to double barrel guns and to the revolvers.

The day you got your first fountain pen, means ink pen, you grew up an inch taller and your ego got a few pounds of extra air. The feeling is almost like the kids who get their first pair of spectacles on the first year in the high school. That day when the specs come ready, the boy or girls read a lot, perhaps for the first time in his life he does all the homework in one go, even for the next year. Same is the case with when you get the new watch. You go to bed wearing the watch and get up in the middle of the night, just ‘to check the time’. Yes, things are alright. So when you get the first fountain pen, given a chance you would copy Mahabharata, just for the kick of it, the whole one lakh shlokas. The owner of a fountain pen unknowingly a Parsi. Parsi gentlemen are famed for their ability to repair anything and keep any machine in functioning condition even if they are a century old. So our little Parsis by default start working on this pen instead of working with these pens. These pens are just plastic barrels with ink regularly filled in it and closed with a corkscrew looking part fitted with a fine nib and a supporting part called ‘tongue’. So it becomes a favourite activity for you to open it and see the level of ink inside. Then screw it back. Happy. Yes happy. Depending on the marks on the upper part of the pen one could say which body part or equipment is used for unscrewing the portion, a vice or teeth. Someone approaches you with a ‘screwed up’ pen and you open it ‘just like’ that. The smile that comes on your face upon opening it would put the smiles of Edmund Hilary or Neil Armstrong into shame. The biggest innovation ever done by the R and D of these pen companies is adding a transparent part in the body of the pen so that the ink level could be seen. The naughtiest one? Adding the picture of a nude girl in that transparent part; when you turn the pen to write she wears a bikini! These adult pens were sadly not allowed in the class rooms.

Then the little Parsis got into working on the nibs and tongue because a fountain pen user lived a life of paranoia; he always thought that something was stuck inside the nib and his handwriting was going haywire because of that. So a day, mostly Sunday was kept aside for cleaning the nibs and tongues. They are wrenched out by force and cleaned with water, dried under sun and observed keenly before you put them back into place. These pens always had a problem; when they fit the nibs back they always went misaligned causing tremendous amount of leakage of ink. But then you were not disappointed; it gave you another chance to pull it out and get into some experiments. This time you found out that there is an inscription on it, ‘Bismie 1970’. You were thrilled to see that. Slowly, the pen became a thing of pity. With constant alterations and experiments sometimes you found a black pen having a red upper portion for it is exchanged with a friend who had the pen of the same make. Cannibalized pens still found their way into the classes terrorizing not only the meek ones but also the teachers. They kept their white clothes miles away from those pens. Finally the pens would go into the ultimate make over; the Parsis become plumbers. They wound some threads around the curved hinges to keep them tight and in place. If it still leaked then it was consigned to its grave yard, one of the remote corners of drawers. The first pen is never thrown. Each student in those days thought they would resurrect, if not on the third day but some day.

 Then years later you find them; like skeletons of an extinct species they lie before your eyes with a strange smell of clotted ink which takes you back to the school days, unfamiliar notebooks, printing presses, shops, ink bottles and so on. Along the way, you started using other pens, much sophisticated pens which had fillers of different kinds and cartridges. You valued your pen and there were no tampering with it. In my childhood there were pen doctors; when the home medicine did not work, parents took these pens to these doctors, expert technicians who rejuvenated ink pens. Now there are hardly pen doctors; there must be experts who handle high end pens that are used only for signing cheque leaves by the business tycoons. Ink pens have become a thing of past. People use a lot of key board work to do their writing. I too work a lot on key board but ink pens are my real tools. I have a pen bought many years back and I use that every day to write and translate. At some point its filler was broken. But I use it still by dipping it into the ink pot. I think I have been doing so for the last five years. Whenever I do that I remember my childhood when my father had a reed pen and a porcelain ink pot. He wrote a few things using these precious pen and ink pot. It was there around for a long time and today I do not know where they have gone.

Like an artist, a writer too uses different tools and mediums to write. For each kind of writing, a writer uses a different kind of pen. In my case my notes are written by one pen whose case remains the same while its refills are carefully selected from the same company. My dairy is written by another pen. Translations are done by my dear Parker pen. My casual notes are written by a different ball point pen. The fact is that when you love your writing tool, they never leak or go wrong. Recently I was in another city with another set of people. We were all using the ball point pens given by the organizers. Suddenly a friend’s pen started leaking. Even if it was not an ink pen it was a casualty. I tried to check the pen and the result was five stained fingers. Ever since I was trying to put these down and I have done it now.

(Images sourced from the internet for representational purposes only)

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