Thiru MS Pandurangan makes his way to the cramped workshop which is at the end of the house. He chooses an ebonite rod, an array of which lies on the floor, before he gets down to work. For what is now a rod of hard rubber, coloured mottled lilac, in a little over an hour, after Pandurangan is through, will emerge as the body of a fountain pen — complete with barrel, section, cap and the finial.
At this stage, either Pandurangan’s son, MP Kandan, or the youngest daughter, MP Rajeshwari, will take over and polish the body. When the body has been sandpapered to the satisfaction of all three, the final touches of bringing a handmade Ranga fountain pen, which starts retailing at upwards of $100, to life, commence. All of this takes place in a congested three-room apartment in Tiruvallur, Tamil Nadu, as it has been ever since Pandurangan, 67, started making pens at the age of 16.
“Fountain pen making was a cottage industry in this town till even two decades ago. Then, Sriperumbudur developed as an auto hub and people moved on,” says Kandan, who is the man responsible for taking his father’s skill and now the company to the world. The family’s pride is their customer register which is packed with addresses and order details of their clients be it in Israel, the US or Delhi.
“We are a small company but we have a large number of customers,” says Kandan. The quote could be extended to fit the fountain pen industry in India today, small in size but big in its aspirations and dreams.
Ranga pens are one of the few players that are around in the industry which got a fillip during the Independence movement when Mahatma Gandhi pushed for swaraj in everything, including manufacturing.
KV Ratnam in Rajahmundry heeded the call and his fountain pens would go on to be used by Jawaharlal Nehru and Ramnath Goenka among others.
“The best writing instrument is a fountain pen and today the culture of the pleasure of writing is being revived,” says Pratap Kumar of Gems & Co, one of Chennai’s oldest pen shops. Kumar extolls the virtues of using a fountain pen but pauses mid-sentence when he realises his quotes are being copied with a Muji roller pen. “Here, write with this,” he insists, for while the technical aspects of a fountain pen’s usage are many (better grip, less friction, balance), the principal advantage is, according to Pratap, matching the frequency of your thoughts to your writing. “With a fountain pen you don’t strike out the way you do with a ballpoint pen,” he says. Pratap’s company, started by his grandfather, manufactures its own line of pens under the brand name Gama.
Unlike high-end luxury pen brand boutiques that sell out of five-star hotels and airport premium lounges, Indian fountain pens are mostly retailed online or from the stores of the manufacturers. “The Indian fountain pen market took a hit in the 1990s with the emergence of ball pens. That is when a lot of manufacturers packed up. While there has always been a community, what was missing was a marketplace,” says Anand Subramaniam. Anand started ASA pens, an online market place in 2013, when he decided to convert his passion for fountain pens from a hobby into a profession. Every pen if you look carefully, according to him bears testament to the person who made it. “The minute you dip a fountain pen, it starts losing its value. So for collectors, it is the joy of possession more than anything else,” he says as he shows Firstpost ASA’s collection.
Most Indian pen makers — Gama, Ranga and ASA included — prefer working with ebonite though acrylic is also a favourite. There are special-edition pens, too, made out of silver or painstakingly hand-painted, carved according to the specifications of the customer. Those for whom a pen is just a pen but are still keen to get started on a collection, the India chapter of The Fountain Pen Network would be a good place to begin. An active community, it is here that one can source advice on the different makers, the different kinds of pens and even the reliability of the manufacturers. Apart from this, there are WhatsApp and Facebook groups too. “The Internet helped us come together,” says Anand of the now flourishing community.
A good fountain pen, both Pratap and Anand tell Firstpost, separately, should never have problems of spilling or staining. Everything from the weather to the design of the pen has to be taken into account so that no ‘bubbling’ (remember the time your finger would be stained with ink or even a school shirt pocket?) takes place. “In India, sometimes manufacturers will create a beautiful body but then overlook things like the nib or even the clip, both of which are very important to the entire experience of using a fountain pen,” says Anand.
From journalists to doctors to bureaucrats to even IT students, fountain pen fans are to be found across professional spectrums. Indian pens may lack the brand power of a Montblanc but for those who are committed to the art of writing, the fountain pen’s entirely handmade Indian identity is a more powerful calling card.
“In a sculpture you don’t pay for the stone but for the artwork that will emerge from it. A fountain pen has the same principle,” says Kandan. His father, in the meantime is holding another ebonite rod, waiting to be crafted into another pen, but maybe tomorrow. “It is like meditation. It brings peace but also takes a lot out of you. So I go easy,” he smiles.
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