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.