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The fount of imagination

Many love and admire the fountain pen and some continue to use it, but only a few are familiar with its multi-century journey, which this book chronicles.
Last Updated : 01 April 2023, 20:15 IST

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Inked in India presents the story of the Indian fountain pen — from the first pen made to the recent tax rate applicable to pens. This journey of manufacture and sale of fountain pens is juxtaposed with the government policies affecting these beauties.

The journey of the fountain pen in India is marked with many tales and anecdotes. Amongst those using Indian fountain pens today, there would be few who would not be aware of Deccan Pen Store, Ratnam Pens and Pen Co. The book tells us that Ratnam Pens was established in Rajahmundry in 1932 and a ‘local judge gave them a book on making fountain pens’ while Deccan Pens began when ‘a farmer from Allahabad got imported pens and started to sell them in Hyderabad’ and that ‘repairs slowly led to manufacturing’. Pen Co today, like Banares, where it is located, ‘has modernised’.

The book talks about men of letters and their tryst with fountain pens: Graham Greene, Mark Twain and Jawaharlal Nehru. Then, of course, there is Rabindranath Tagore who has a nib named after him. The Tagore nib is an “adjustable nib, varying from flexible to firm, which is useful for sketching and calligraphy work”.

The book begins with a crisp introduction. The text is based on solid research and is buttressed with footnotes. It tells us how during pre-independence, the setting up of universities saw a spike in the manufacture and sale of fountain pens and when we got independence, the fountain pen was used to draft our Constitution. Even after independence, fountain pens played an important role. Writing cheques with ballpoint pens became acceptable only during 1962 and ‘over a period of time, government and legal documents and examinations came to accept ballpoint pens, which were more convenient’. This is also underscored in the snippets of the Rajya Sabha discussions.

The numbers the book highlights are perhaps hard to believe today when it is rare to come across people who write with fountain pens. During the 1960s, there were apparently around 250 enterprises making fountain pen nibs in Sattur alone! “And in 1962, there were about 210 small units with an annual capacity of 47, 65,000 pens.”

The book provides the curious reader with answers to many questions that one might have wanted to ask but didn’t know who to approach. For instance, why, for an entire generation of schoolchildren, fountain pens meant only the China-made Hero brand? The authors also raise a few questions of their own. Would the fountain pen scenario in India be different today if the policies had taken a different trajectory? Is the ballpoint pen the only reason for their decline? How many use these pens today or are they only collector’s items? Is there a revival on the horizon?

The quality of pages and printing is high. The cover is eye-catching. However, the lists and names, which appear and reappear, break the flow. Sketches of fountain pens or descriptions of antique pens in museums could have added value. But then, the authors may already have thought of a follow-up book. They not only know their pens, but they also have flair. At one point they bring in a caveat, ‘one should not believe everything one reads’ while at another place, they write, ‘while small may be beautiful, beauty does not always have much to do with business and commercial decision making’.

Many love and admire fountain pens, and some continue to use them, but only a few are familiar with their multi-century journey in our country. This is where the book comes in. It takes you on a journey that makes you want to get hold of a fountain pen and write!

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Published 01 April 2023, 19:41 IST

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