Fountain pen

The old man recognized me although he has not seen me in over a decade. “When did you come back home?”

“Last week,” I said with a feeble smile. “Kaku, are you well?”

“I am fine, though my eyesight is not as good as it used to be. I could hardly recognize you. You look so different now. ”

“But you look the same, kaku.” I lied. No one looks the same after a decade.

I had been to this shop before. Many times. Here I bought reams of paper and tied them into neat notebooks with string and needle, using the colored Sunday pages of newspapers as covers. This is where I bought cheap pencils and tin geometry boxes with misshapen compasses and warped protractors. This is where I bought my first fountain pen.

Who uses a fountain pen anymore?

When I was in school, a fountain pen was the only incorruptible writing instrument for the bhadralok. Pencils were for babies and dot-pens were not used by studious boys and girls, who could be immediately identified through their superior penmanship. So, we practiced our assignments with cheap fountain pens.

There was a proper protocol to inaugurating fountain pens. We used messy plastic droppers to insert ink into the open barrels. We’d pull the ink to the nib by running the tips of fingers across the fine slit. Sometimes the ink would gush out. That was normal and not a cause for panic. The only acceptable procedure for taking care of inky fingers was to move them with one fine flourish through our hair: the wisdom handed down from generation to generation was that the ink added to the black luster.

The night before major examinations, we armed an arsenal of fountain pens. We also took little inkpots with us. More often than not, the ink ran out though, this was not completely out of necessity, for we measured our peers not only by how many pages they filled, but by how fast they exhausted the ink in their fountain pens.

Fountain pens projected an aura of prestige, but required a lot of maintenance. If you wanted to store a pen for a long period of time, you had to wash out the barrel with water and clean the nib. Because the angle and amount of pressure every person used to write was different, the nib of even the finest fountain pens would get bent over time (for which there were “pen hospitals”).

And the finest fountain pen of them all was the Wing Sung, which you got on a birthday, or if you did well on a test. The Wing Sung which sold for an exorbitant twenty rupees was not an Ambassador. It was the Mercedes of fountain pens. It exuded elegance. It had a squeeze-injection system for the ink. A fine porcelain finish with a golden cap. It wrote smoothly for many pages before needing a fill-up. Ownership was a point of pride for every schoolboy.

I got my first Wing Sung at this shop.

Kaku, do you have any fountain pens?”

The old man nodded and slowly turned. He pulled a series of discolored cardboard boxes from under the counter. He wiped away the dust and looked at me. Twenty years ago, he would have asked the boy in front of him, his budget. He didn’t ask the grown-up man who sat in front of computers all day, his.

He opened a box and pulled out a small fountain pen wrapped in see-through plastic from the neatly arranged assortment. He took a pen from the plastic and reached for an inkpot. He put both in front of me and pulled out a small notepad with doodles scribbled all over it. I opened the pen and dipped the nib in the ink and scribbled over the pad. The patterns on the page created themselves. The writing was smooth. The lines were exquisite. Quite remarkably, all this happened without either of us uttering a word: this was a ritual that we had performed many times before.

When I was in high school the ball-point pen, or dot-pen as we called them, became ubiquitous. We all started using cheap-looking Reynolds ball-point pens because we could write more pages with them. They were convenient. They were mass-produced and sold in packs of ten. They didn’t need pen hospitals. Fountain pens as primary writing instruments died out.

The pen gave way to the keyboard. This much is certain. I will never regularly use a fountain pen again. I hardly use a pen for anything other than jotting down a quick note or a phone number. My handwriting, which I was once proud of, resembles the hysterical scratches of an underfed hen now.

The few times I pick up a pen these days, I use gel pens. They are fine instruments, no doubt…

But I wonder what they call the plastic balls you have to snap off the refills before you can start writing. I always forget that step before trying to write. Never mind.


51 thoughts on “Fountain pen

  1. Beautiful.

    Some pens have a knack of making the written material look more special, no matter how mundane the content is. Fountain pens never failed to do that, ever. 🙂

    1. Thank you. I got better at writing them.. some of the cheap ones would ooze a ring of ink at the place where you had to open them to get the ink in… but writing with a good fountain pen was always a joy. 🙂

  2. Wonderfully written!

    Pencils are high-school crushes, Ball-points are one night stands. Fountain pens are like relationships – need maintenance, lots of care and attention, will get messy but the outcome is beautiful and cherished.

  3. indeed reminded me of Ink pen days ….and art of dying the hair…. I remember My dad used to tell us to keep extra Nib handy …as two fountain pen would have been luxury….and I remember how specifically I used an Ink pen for essay competition while others used ball point (might be the reason , I won )

    1. The art of dying the hair was a classic. Unfortunately, sometime after I stopped using fountain pens, my hair started to gray. I’d like to think that there is some connection. 😀

  4. Memories rushed back! I might take proud in the fact that I still do love to used fountain pens though now upgraded to Lamy and the likes! 🙂

    1. Haha… I think the standard Wing Sung pen only came in those three colors. Maybe green also? Can’t remember now. There was a fancier type which had floral patterns on a white background, but the maroon one was the most common, I think.

  5. That’s a beautiful post. Took me back in time. In our school, we used pencils till Class 3 and pens only in Class 4. Fountain pens with blotter style fillers, then those with pre filled ink. The thicker the nib, the better (for me anyway) and black ink was classy!
    However, by Class 6, the ballpoints with their convenience took over. But there is nothing like a good fountain pen!

    1. The thicker nib was always better when I was a child too…. may have been because I applied too much pressure for the delicate ones. Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. I don’t recall having a Wing Sun until I was pretty old. The first set of fountain pens were more the standard issue Artex one. They had this sturdy model which was all yellow (kind of the Calcutta cab color) with a blob of black on the cap and the bottom. The nib was broad and hence it allowed itself to be used for all kinds of cursive scripts – standard, upside down usage of the nib and even side-ways. And of course, the inks would require their own post 🙂 Sulekha was something that was preferred primarily because the factory was near (I used to live at Jadavpur then).

    1. Yes, Sulekha ink! Long before Camel and the others. Thank you, Sankarshan…. that name brings back so many memories.

      Back then even our teachers had fountain pens. They would clip them to their shirt pockets. Sometimes when the ink would come out it would create this big blob of ink.

      And then there was the prank of getting ink on classmates’ backs. Good thing mothers had the blue detergent back then (and our shirts were bluish anyway). 😀

  7. Such a lovely n nostalgic read!! God, how i used to struggle with those nibs,either broken or twisted 😦 Well my fountain pen was my only sword to take revenge on any of my classmates. . . . .all you need to do is zoooop 😛

  8. Beautifully written. And daddy_san’s comment was sone pe suhaaga as they say 🙂

    We had to write in ink pen(as we used to call it) until we took our Board exams. Teachers/parents were hell bent on it.
    Never knew about any Wing Sung pens. Our high point was getting a hero pen.

    On a lighter note, those ink pens left some marks at wrong places on the trousers and it was always a handy weapon for playing some impromptu holi 🙂

    1. Back then I think India didn’t mass-produce good ball-point pens either. Or at least, the ones I used were quite awful. The fountain pen was a much better choice.

  9. Our personality and mood showed more in our handwriting when we used fountain pens, I think. Letters received were sometimes cherished pieces of art. Other pens did not give the same vibe.
    We seldom write a letter now, let alone with a fountain pen. Even the keyboard is getting displaced by Touchpad and now, Sri Siri 🙂

  10. A nice, memory-invoking post; thank you!

    Some of us, it seems, were born in the very short interval between the খাগের কলম (and quill) age and the biro (dot, ball point, gel and all the newfangled writing implements) era. My grampa, a doctor, used a Pelican and a Mont Blanc, with a Premier President in reserve for his non-prescription-writing. My father used an FN Guptoo for his crosswords and a Parker 51 for writing. I graduated from pencils to so-called dipping-pens with detachable brass or steel nibs and thence to a Pilot gifted to me by my vice-chancellor uncle. There was the ubiquitous and ever-leaking Writer for school use — a new one every few weeks for that was their life span and my retaining ability (not to be confused with stamina; no disambiguation needed for ‘retaining ability’ in the sense of not losing things in the normal course of use). I still use my grampa’s Premier President, the body made of real ivory and black-lacquered, when I’m not too feeble (with age) to lift its weight, and gel pens for my crosswords and increasingly rare Bangla writing.

    1. Many thanks for sharing these wonderful anecdotes. I remember getting many fountain pens on birthdays. I’ve never used dipping pens. All my colleagues gave me a very nice fountain pen with a gold nib as a graduation present after I defended my dissertation. I have used it very few times.

  11. Ah! Nostalgia. I remember the first time fumble while injecting the ink in my fountain pen.
    I had many but one was an elegant piece. Golden cap with deep blue body. Smooth as smoothie and classy as tuxedo.
    Then came the college and it was gone, perhaps forever. 045 REYNOLDS is the trend now but I wish if I could use it once again…..

  12. A very enjoyable read. It’s nice thing in my daughter’s school, the kids are told to switch from pencil to fountain pen in class V.
    So after many years, I actually bought an ink pot 🙂

    1. I got one nearly half a decade ago when I fancied writing with a fountain pen again… I’ll have to check to see if the ink is still fluid. 🙂

  13. this was a sweet post..I remember using fountain pens.. I always felt my handwriting looked better with that… umm I still have 2 of those, but I don’t use it now… Worth a Spicy Saturday Pick.. 🙂

  14. Nice write up, Anirban!
    All I can remember is that Camlin pens were the standard and Hero was a luxury. Thanks to some of uncles and aunts and cousins in the family, I got a steady supply of Hero.
    Also, nowadays, I’m surprised to see that my daughters have been instructed at school to use the fountain pens.

  15. very very nicely written.
    nostalgia is so powerful, u made me live my cravings for a proper ‘Chinese’ fountain pen once again
    i used to really prize my handwriting skills but those cheap ball-point pens and the need to take notes in higher classed ruined it for ever 😦
    i’m a writer and i use ball-points regularly. but the magic of a fountain pen is hard to forget. even now, i’ve two mint new fountain pens lying in my drawer, one i begged my girlfriend to ‘gift’ to me, one my senior gave as a ‘gift’
    both gifts are still lying unused, and there is no reason they should remain so 🙂
    thanks for the post anirban

  16. Beautiful, beautiful post. The pen hospital, the ink fingers finding their way into hair, the ritual of filling up the ink, the pride of owning that ‘special’ fountain pen…… I so badly want to write with one right now!! Kudos!

  17. A very impressive post. I became nostalgic after reading it.. In my childhood we used to use Quink ink. The most popular and prestigious fountain pens were Parker 51 and Sheffers.How much we miss those days!! Well done!! Anirban.

  18. i am also using a fountain pen. also trying to get good and cheap ink. i have parker quink and camel ink. thanks for your post.

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