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November 22, 2014

That inking feeling

APOORVA SRIPATHI finds a niche clique of writers who still put pen to paper

Needless hipsterism has been slowly creeping into our lives, whether it’s vintage cameras, moustache icons on clothes, cassette tapes and vinyl records, thick, oversized glasses, or an unhealthy obsession with cats. Fountain pens, however hipster they are, have been present too, silent and strong. And even if it may seem that tablets, smart phones and computers have decreased the need for writing instruments, there is a thriving coterie of people who find fountain pens, especially, indispensable.

Take a peek at the Reddit forum (r/fountainpens) for proof. You’ll find discussion threads on the best pen to buy, what people write when they test out a pen or just pictures of peoples’ collections.

To understand the fountain pen, one must first understand its origin and evolution to what it is now. While it is unclear who invented the instrument, it is widely accepted that the quill pen gave rise to the steel-nibbed fountain pen in the 1800s, and in 1883, L.E. Waterman invented what is often hailed as the first practical pen, according to Andreas Lambrou, the author of  Fountain Pens of the World . (Fun fact: The expression ‘done and dusted’ arises from fountain pens. To quicken the drying process of ink on paper, one sprinkled absorbent powder on the paper. Once the ink dried, the powder was dusted off.)

Contrary to popular belief, fountain pens aren’t just an old person’s game; they’re for everyone. Granted, there are some pens in the world that may cost more than one’s kidney(s), thanks to fine craftsmanship, but there is a whole generation of youngsters catching on to the trend.

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Take for instance, 24-year-old Tanmai Gopal who runs a software company in the city. Like many of his peers, he started using fountain pens when he was in school, but, unlike some of them, continued using it till today. “My parents gifted me a Lamy when I was in Class X. I wrote my board exams with it and scored a 100 in mathematics, and since then, I’ve always used it. Incidentally, my handwriting is much nicer to look at,” he laughs. While putting pen to paper is a gratifying feeling in itself, Tanmai goes a step further and admits that he is fascinated by the different, coloured inks available. What’s more, he even enjoys mixing colours, he says. 

Twenty-eight-year-old tech professional and quizzer Keshav Athreya claims it’s a good conversation starter. “At work, someone or the other notices that I use a fountain pen and they ask me why I do so, and on it goes Apart from that, it’s a combination of smooth writing, and how my handwriting looks on paper,” he says, and adds that it may just run in the family for him. “My grandfathers used quill-like fountain pens and perhaps, my fascination started there.”

The well-stocked Makoba store in Nungambakkam, which deals extensively with pens of all kinds, is a one-stop shop for pen connoisseurs and the curious, says Nitesh Jain, director. “Five years ago, when we started the shop, my partner and I were scared to place an order for a pen worth Rs. 5,000 but today, we stock all kinds of luxury, limited edition, and affordable pens as well,” he explains.

Nitesh says his clients are, broadly, of two types — the pen connoisseurs and those looking for gifts. When a customer walks into his store, Nitesh says his staff first understands their handwriting and then recommends a suitable pen, irrespective of its price. “Doctors, lawyers and students, for example, will be recommended different, but specific, pens. It all depends on the balance.” He adds that a good fountain pen starts at Rs. 1,000 and goes up to Rs. 3 lakh, like the Visconti Alchemy. There’s also the Space Pen by Fisher Space Pen Company that writes in zero gravity, underwater, and in a wide range of temperatures. Then there are car brands, like Ducati, Bentley and Jaguar, which also make luxury pens. 

At the quiet but busy store of William Penn at Express Avenue, store manager Jakir Hussain shows a couple of youngsters a selection of fountain pens. Before leaving, they take one last look at the glass display, admiring a couple of slender, black pens and some opulent ones in gold and silver. “People who buy ink pens are usually those who write a lot,” Jakir says, “especially, those who associate a certain feel to writing; it’s all about the art of writing. If you have a good pen in your hand, thoughts automatically flow, and it reflects on the paper.”

He strongly states that, besides older folks, there a thriving community of students who are quite passionate about writing with fountain pens, as well as collecting them, “In the five years that I’ve worked here, I’ve seen many more youngsters frequent our store; in fact there are some 24-25 year olds who have a collection numbering more than 3,000 pens,” he says. 

At William Penn, there are ‘Pen Consultants’, as opposed to just employers or salespersons. Jakir says that they suggest what is right for the customer and it’s almost scientific. “We don’t push expensive pens just for the sake of it. With a fountain pen, you have to be careful about the angle at which you use it. The way every tip interacts with paper is different — it’s classified into medium, fine and bold.” 

While Jakir doesn’t consider fountain pens an investment, unless it’s of the limited edition variety like the AP Limited Edition pens, where he says the pens appreciate every year, Chitty Babu, Chairman and CEO, Akshaya Pvt Ltd, attaches an emotional connect to it. “I have a good collection of fountain pens, mostly Mont Blancs that are known for their smoothness, technology and innovation. “My first pen was a Parker gifted by my father and I still have it. If there’s any important document I have to sign, I use that.”

It doesn’t take a sleuth to realise that not everyone can own a Mont Blanc or a Caran d’Ache, both luxury brands. But in the case of fountain pens, a little does go a long way. It boils down to basic care and maintenance. Keshav says, “I’ve spent Rs. 300 on an ink filler/converter; the ink itself comes up to Rs. 400 and a box of cartridges is at Rs. 300 for three. Now that I look at it — it’s quite a sizeable sum to spend on a pen!”

Nitesh suggests that a fountain pen should never be shared, as it takes some time for the nib to ‘break-in’ (just as with a new shoe) and the writing also depends on the grip and hold of the person using it. Jakir has the last word. “The nibs are important and they come in gold and steel. For me, the gold nibs make all the difference; the experience is definitely smoother and richer.”

Box: Pamper your pen

- When you’re not using the fountain pen, remove the ink and keep it aside. Otherwise, the ink will dry up and there will not be a smooth flow, making it difficult to write.

- When cleaning the pen, don’t remove the nib and the feed (the section behind the nib). Immerse the instrument, after removing it from the barrel, into a glass of water for three to four hours.

- Rinse it under tap water until clear water comes out.

- Use a tissue to slowly dab the nib. Never use cloth and don’t rub the nib..