Back in 1988 we were making our entry into the fifth standard (fifth grade for Yanks). This was of special significance to students in India, for we were graduating from using pencils for writing to using pens. At that point the choice was between fountain pens and ballpoint pens.
Given the fact that most of us were from a middle class upbringing, the best fountain pens those days used to be the black-body gold-cap “Hero” and “Wing Sung” pens that came with the inscription, “MADE IN CHINA”. In the days prior to the market liberalization it seemed a privilege to possess one of these, which, even today would rival several others in terms of the quality and ease of writing.
There were the rest of the folks who would use ballpoint pens – Reynolds (“Fine Carbure”) was a rage those days. Most people would agree that penmanship was undoubtedly better with a fountain pen, but then would actually use a ballpoint simply because it was easier to use. You never had the problem of a leaky pen and you didn’t have to cope with the growing pains of broken nibs.
But somehow I always liked fountain pens. Never mind the fact that the ones we had were often of poor quality, which more often than not resulted in a mess. Once you got used to them, however, you could actually notice a significant difference in your handwriting. Fountain pens gave you a lot of control while writing, and moreover, since you were always concerned about them leaking, you paid that little extra bit of attention to them. I do recall, though, alternating between fountain pens and ballpoints, depending on what I felt like at that point. Somehow in exams critical to me I always ended up using a ballpoint – the board exams of Class X, the board exams of Class XII, IIT-JEE and all other entrance exams. The reasons are not hard to fathom:
- Ballpoints ran smoother on paper, so in exams where time is of paramount importance they give you that edge which can make a difference.
- You avoided the undesirable risk of having a malfunctioning pen at crunch-time.
Fast-forward to my professional career – almost. I did purchase a “Hero” during my summer internship at TCS/TRDDC Pune in 1999. This was my only “indulgence” in a summer of frugality. It was the first time I was being paid for work and out of my total earnings of Rs. 5,900/- for the entire 2 months, I was able to pay rent, buy train tickets for the journey back home, purchase breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, manage bus tickets for a daily commute, buy a waterproof jacket to shelter myself from the rain, buy a “Hero” pen and save Rs. 50/-!! I somehow never ended up using the pen too much.
Then came 2004. My project team decided to gift me a Parker. I was so touched by the gesture that I decided to start using the pen right away. I did use this quite extensively for the next year or so. I do remember conversations in this vein:
Somebody: Can I borrow a pen?
Me: Sure, here you are
Somebody: What the…? What kind of a pen is this? You use a fountain pen??!!
Me: Yes, that way if you inadvertently walk away with the pen you know later who you took it from!
This works. Everytime. My romance with the Parker came to an end when the cap and the body developed a crack. So I was on the hunt again and got a really expensive “Senator”. I was really happy with this one, till the mechanism I used for refills clogged. And then I got myself a Lamy, which I have been quite content using for the last year or so.
However, it is a sign of another malaise that in my one year with this pen I have had to refill it only once. Naturally I was quite annoyed with myself when I saw that I was out of ink when I desperately needed to complete the Sudoku on my flight from Austin to San Jose last evening. This, and a host of other incidents on my trip to Austin prompted me to write this.
In this age of the internet, laptops and PDAs, we really have no time for the old-fashioned letter to friends and relatives. If we don’t have someone’s email address we lose all contact with him / her, never mind the fact that we know where exactly this person lives. All it would take, though was to simply put pen to paper. My dear friend Ahuja, on my just concluded trip to Austin gave me copies of two letters that I had written to him back in the days of IIT. The originals were printouts of what I had typed out and sent to him by snail-mail. You see, we had computers those days, but not internet. The printouts sent me on another train of thought. There was a time when I used to write at least two letters by hand each week. Two letters each week! I was regular, I had good style and most importantly I had a great handwriting. At present I probably write one letter every two years. My emails are by no means regular. And my style of writing has deteriorated to an alarming extent.
Has technology pushed us so far back? I recently wrote in a post that children today are missing out on the undiluted thrill of turning the pages of a book. I would like to take it a step further and state that adults today are missing out on the good and effective means of keeping in touch in trying to keep up with their work. Perhaps that is why the sound of the scratch of the nib of a fountain on a sheet of paper seems so nostalgic to me.