The first pen I held in my hand was an ink pen or ‘Boru’ as it was called in those days. This was a writing instrument made out of a grass stem. An angular cut in the front end served as a nib; you dipped it in the ink and then wrote on paper.
Boru was used by students mainly for improving their handwriting. You had to draw the curves in a particular way with that angular cut of the so called nib.
In schools we used pencils. Nobody bought a box full of pencils as the students do today. One pencil at a time. If it had eraser fixed at the other end, it was a bonus. We started using fountain pens only when we moved to high school. I always preferred one that wrote thick. When you went to a shop to buy a nib, the shop keeper would give you one and you had very little choice but to take it. Even they did not know which one would write thick. So I used to buy a nib and then rub it on a slate to make its writing end thicker.
Pens were made of some plastic material. Probably ebonite. Somebody discovered that if you rubbed it with wet turmeric, it changed its colour. So we often tried it. But this did not work on black colour. So my friends and I never used black pens.
Running out of ink was a fear we always had while writing our exams. On the eve of the examination we would fill up ink and ready it for use next day. But the fear would drive all crazy, and we saw an opportunity to persuade our parents to buy one more pen for us, just in case…..!
Then came ball pens, I do not even recall when I started using ball point pens. Ball pens were also messy with ink not flowing uniformly. I never liked ball point pens and I stuck to fountain pens. We used to buy refills and use a pen for a long time. Offices would also supply refills to their staff though not ball pens.
Then in seventies, street vendors at Flora Fountain [now Hutatma Chowk] started selling ‘imported’ ball point pens. These came in bright colours. ‘BiC’ was a very popular brand. With ball point pens we were introduced to American ‘use and throw’ way of life. Sometimes those vendors sold a pen which could hold four or five refills of different colours. You could use any and that pen was an attraction.
I used to travel by local [suburban] trains in those days. If you borrowed a pen from a fellow traveller, he would keep the cap with him so that you could not ‘pocket’ the pen. That is how middle class Maharashtrians in Mumbai lived. Conservative, weary of wastage, and making use of everything carefully. [I remember that many people used to buy a suitcase and then a cover for it too!]
The funny aspects of pen were not just these; universities had disallowed use of ball point pens to write examination papers for quite some time. Who introduced this rule and who overturned it should be a matter of research in hilarious practices.
As for inks, I am convinced that the producers were deeply influenced by Ford’s philosophy – ‘You can have any colour as long as it is blue!’ Red and Black were available, but nobody used it. Camlin was the only producer though later ‘Quink’ came on the scene. As time progressed they offered ‘turquoise blue’ ink which was my choice for several years.
Near our college, SIES at Sion in Mumbai, an old man would use some pointed instruments to write your name on the pens. I had often got it done. The process of inscribing was similar to tattoo. All this conveyed ‘style.’ An inexpensive pen was embellished as if it was a great possession. And rightly so! There were ‘lucky’ pens and ‘unlucky’ pens. The former brought in an easy examination paper and the other brought in a tough one! The problems of students were always lying outside of them – and pens were easy targets. Unlucky pens were gotten rid of to get a lucky [hopefully] one, but it was achieved only with a strong word of disapproval from parents.
Students had perfected an art of taking out your pen from pocket without you noticing it. This was done as follows: Take a paper and roll it to make a cone. Slide the cone’s edge under the pen’s protruding grip on the target’s pocket. This can be done swiftly by an experienced hand!
Two brands sold well in those days – ‘Mhatre’ pens and ‘Wilson.’ There was not much choice. Parker was a luxury. Parkers were imported pens, so a student neither could afford it nor could even see it in shops. The only pen we could afford was ‘Hero’ and it was made in China. I used my Hero carefully for a few years. When somebody presented me a Parker, I was very excited; I was afraid of taking it to college. Everybody was so possessive of his pens.
Ball point pens, and then many varieties of pens hit the market, but none has association like a fountain pen with me. I was never was possessive of ball point pens. With laptops and iPads, the usage of pens is decreasing. But old faithful like me still use a fountain pen. I have many Parkers, Sheaffers and Cross pens, I like them but I am not attached to them.
It only goes to show that an object is important because you project so many emotions on it! They say that your writing reflects your personality. This is true, but they also must know that the writing instrument also reflects your personality. Horace, the leading Roman lyric poet said “The pen is the tongue of the mind.” You penned our thoughts, Horace!