Pen Hospital

Growing up in the sleepy city of Trivandrum in the 90s, early school days were prime "Only 90s kids will know" material. This time, I was nine, and fourth standard marked that coming of age in junior school where you transitioned from scruffy Nataraj Gold or Camlin Flora pencils to writing with a pen. Just two years ago, we had been little urchins, our black shorts just shy of our knees struggling to copy down Ms. Murray's beautiful cursive writing into our four-line notebooks. Silently, almost subconsciously sounding the words we wrote, to ourselves. The silent Rs. ("Goodness, Sriram! Cahtuh, not Kaartar"). Making sure we never stopped to cross our Ts or dot the Is in the midst of a word, but letting the lines flow undisturbed till we completed the word, and then rushing back to complete the little formalities. The grand, flowery tops of the Is and the bottoms of capital Ds. (Many years later - "I love the way you write that D. Here, write my name".)

All that had been to the sound of the humble pencil (one that would have miraculously clocked four weeks in existence, and watching its mates getting lost in the cavernous depths under our desks and benches) scratching against a 200 page notebook. But this year was different. We walked into class smelling of new bags, new shirts and with an assortment of Camlin fountain pens setting up a rattling din inside our pencil boxes. And soon enough, it was a new lifestyle. Fountain pens of all shapes and sizes - "What's that fat one?" "It has a transparent tank portion so you can check the ink level. Here, take a look". We would crowd around to admire it, go back home and want one. The fountain pens we wielded back then (or simply, 'ink pens' as we called them) were simple affairs. Long nibs, "Platinum tipped Fine", sitting over that finned and chiseled piece of wood and a belly full of ink. No cartridges or the Hero-esque pinch-to-fill mechanisms. Unscrew pen, pour ink into the long tubular back, shut it (taking care not to let that bit of ink squeeze out through the screw-threads and soil your finger for the rest of the day), and put it to paper.

Quite the hipster lot back then, we had our own gang of connoisseurs as well. Within a few weeks we had Chelpark vs. Bril flame wars, and the Hero loving group taking digs at the others. "It cleans the pen as it writes", Nikhil told me about his Bril ink over the interval break. And so it was that I, having exhausted my polyhedral bottle of Chelpark Royal Blue, was now the owner of the plain looking bottle (it was the Old Monk quarter bottle of the ink kingdom. Simple, ubiquitous.) of Bril.
"It smells strange", I told Nikhil the next day.
"Oh but it's good. You'll get used to it."

The pens changed, the ink brands changed, but we kept writing. Unbeknownst to myself, I had begun the long love affair with a rather curious bunch of things that included fountain pens, mechanical watches, steam locomotives, Royal Enfields and grandfather clocks. One that extends to this day.

"Pick one. One's for you and the other is for amma". I looked at them. There was a regular maroon Hero, and some other unfamiliar one that looked sturdy, with sleek lines and a rugged vintage look to it. It glided over paper like a stick of butter over a warm tawa, with just the right amount of friction to signal that it was alive and working. I was sold. It was a beaut. It seemed like a vintage Hero model, one that looked different from all its contemporary brethen. Sturdy, non tapered dark green body, with sharp lines towards the nib, ending in a chiselled edge. The nib was triangular, and steel coloured. Meanwhile, other pens came, served and passed on. This gentleman hung on, acquiring a sort of Emeritus status amongst the general riff-raff that inhabited the box.


"Dude, that thing smells awesome!"
"Yep. Ambi Pur car perfume. Laced the ink with a bit of it." Narendran takes a sniff at it. We're interrupted with the loud noise of Manmadhan Sir clearing his throat.
"Mark that answer, and write A.P.V in the margin next to it". Like a true performer, he waits for a second or two for our intrigued silence to fill the room, before going on to explain.
"Ammachiyane pareekshakku varum!". He smiles smugly and indulges his pot belly in a quick visceral chuckle.

We finish writing, and put our books away. I get up, and the Hero chooses that moment to make an impulsive (and foolish, I may add) dive to the ground. My heart makes contact with the buccal cavity for a brief moment, and the pen comes to rest on its side. A spray of ink lies splattered where it had hit the hard cement floor.

The worst thing that can happen to a pen is to the nib. For in that metal tip lay the character of the pen - the individual as you came to know it. It contained what drove the feel of it, the nuances you gradually came to be acquainted with over the pages you had walked together. The angle at which it let the ink mark the paper, glisten on for a bit and slowly dry up into a matte finish. The beady point at the end of the nib had cracked.


The chap manning the stationery shop eyed it with a grim look of the doctor in the Casualty Ward who knows that the patient has to be transferred. "Can't do much about it, we don't get nibs of this sort these days. However, I do know of a place where you might want to try your luck.."

The Pen Hospital. Tucked away in the most inconspicuous manner on a bustling road in the heart of the city, it was one of those places you would never find unless you came looking for it. A small opening out into the street, half guarded by pale blue wooden shutters. The other half was open, revealing a small shop with a lamp throwing a dancing, flickering flame over a desk piled high with little boxes, small metal tools and various odds and ends. A gentleman sat by the side of it, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, working on something tiny. A pair of small reading glasses sat on the edge of his nose, and the flame cast itself in each of the lenses, dancing in unison over his cheek bones. A metal board above, that had clearly seen better days, simply said - "Pen Hospital".

Dad took the pen out from his pocket and handed it over to him, mumbling a few words about the nib. He received it, and turned it around in his hands, examining it under the lamp. When he looked up, he looked as if he had met an old friend. "You don't find pens like this these days. This one's quite good. Let me see if I can find a nib for you". I was overjoyed. I watched him wrap the old one in a bit of newspaper and hand it to me along with the pen, its new steel nib on. He smiled as he handed it to me. "Take care of this one!". I nodded.


I have been absent mindedly twirling the bright red ball point pen from Google's talk, between my teeth. The old pen, along with a few other decommissioned ones are sitting ten thousand miles away in a little box in my room. Neglected, and fallen into disuse. I hardly write more than a few sentences at a stretch by hand these days. And when that happens, it is on the inglorious and characterless BIC or some random pen I've picked up from a campus stall. The fall of the machine from being a living breathing individual, the heart of the activity itself, to being a mere tool one gave hardly a thought to over the course of a busy day. I find myself involuntarily drawing lines to a similar fate that befell a similarly loved set of machines, once proudly going about their duties in the steam sheds of Mysore and Mathura. And another fine breed of lovingly crafted machines - chiming away in living rooms, stately sentinels of time, now having disappeared to a concept - mere pixels on gorilla glass.

It has been a while since I walked down that road in Trivandrum, and I wonder if the man and his shop are still around. Experience warns me against being optimistic when it comes to these things however, and I struggle to recall having seen the board from the countless times I must have passed by that road during the last years of college. I can't. Perhaps - I reassure myself - perhaps I just wasn't looking for it.

But now the shop, the organised clutter inside and the flame of the lamp in the fading light of dusk, come back as I eye yet another single-use BIC perched on my desk. Well then, here's one more thing to go home to.


Anonymous said...

Gahh, beautiful. I'm so tempted to go get an ink pen tomorrow. I was always awful at using them though. The ink would get everywhere from my elbow to my palm (not even sure how I managed that!). There was a boy in my class with a super-fancy one his uncle got him from Europe. I hated him for it!:D

I have started to write more by hand lately (thinking it would make me more of a post-college real-life adult, etc). It's so weird- I had to actually get reused to it. So much for all those days of handwriting competitions!

Anonymous said...

I've been using a fountain pen ever since I started working, makes the task of jotting notes and minutes bearable. I use a lamy now, no bells and whistles, gets the job done. And i don't have to fret too much if I lose it.

Keep the posts coming.


Anonymous said...

Nice read. Brought back a lot of memories!

Anonymous said...

Nice one! I've always loved fountain pens and this brought back some good memories.