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A fountain pen trail through Mumbai

Abandoned the trusty ink pen in school? We find there are still takers for the old-school writing instrument in the city

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Nov 04, 2016 17:32 IST
fountain pen

A Ratnam fountain pen; it is an Indian company and there is great demand for their pens (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

Abandoned the trusty ink pen in school? We find there are still takers for the old-school writing instrument in the city

In pre-Partition India, Mohan L Mirchandani ran a successful pen store in Karachi. During the Partition, like several others, he left everything in Pakistan, to start a life in Mumbai.

In 1951, Mirchandani founded Airmail Pen Company, one of the earliest Indian companies to make writing instruments. Their specialisation: fountain pens with large, transparent ink tanks. The three-storied factory still stands tall in Vile Parle (E). Contrary to the notion about the waning appeal of fountain pens, their business is going strong.

Airmal pens are among the earliest Indian fountain pens. They are known for large, transparent ink tanks (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

Read more: A watch collector’s guide to Mumbai, and why you should buy the last few HMTs

Ahead of Fountain Pen Day (celebrated internationally on the first Friday of November), users, collectors and sellers across the city reaffirm our faith in the old-fashioned writing instrument. At the iconic Apsara Pen Mart — you can’t miss their bright, yellow signboard at Flora Fountain, Fort — Anand Ganesh Naidu (60), who has been working here and dealing with ink pens for 40 years, shows us a collection of Airmail pens alongside a rare Parker 21, Parker 45, and a Sheaffer Imperial.

Apsara Pen Mart in Fort started in 1962 as a roadside stall selling pens and watches (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

Naidu is a busy man: almost all at once, he is striking deals with his clients, polishing a nib and rearranging pens in the wooden cabinet. He was 15 when he started work here. “It was a nondescript stall in the ’60s. We didn’t have proper showcases, but we didn’t need them. Until the open market [after the 1991 economic reforms], we had to hide our stock of imported pens. In the early 2000s, when gel pens invaded the market, the demand for fountain pens died for some years. But there is definite demand again,” he says with a proud smile.

A fountain pen map of Mumbai

Writer’s block

With the disposable pen invasion in the ’90s, pens started as cheap as Rs 5. One could get a gel pen for Rs 10. The hassle-free pens were a serious threat to fountain pens. But with physical writing itself on the wane now, scribble pads are being replaced by digital notepads.

However, a renewed millennial fascination is seeing heightened interest in old journals, tape recorders and mechanical watches. Alongside, the desire to own fountain pens has emerged as a niche hobby. Ashok Chheda, owner, Janata Book Centre, Bandra (W), too, claims that the demand for fountain pens is on the rise again. “Art and architecture students prefer fountain pens. The Lamy (priced Rs 1,200 onward) is a favourite, and sell more than the budget Parkers (Rs 400 onward), Armours (starting at Rs 30) or Chinese pens,” he says.

Vintage Sheaffer pens; the luxury pens can also be customised (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

The revival

Naidu says that the pen community is not restricted to students or collectors of high-end pieces. He believes a section of regular users are still keeping ink pots handy.

Artist Shawn Lewis, 28, is one of them. At his studio apartment on Chapel Road, a bottle of Camel black ink and one of Parker blue sit alongside each other. A couple of basic, hardy Parker Vectors are Lewis’s go to sketching tools, for commercial and personal work.

Artist Shawn Lewis uses Parker Vectors as sketching tools (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

“I loved using the basic ink pens back in school. Even now, I do not buy exorbitant collectible pens just to put them on display. I want to bring them back to daily use,” he says. He creates a unique blend of ink and watercolour to produce impressionistic paintings. A squiggle here, a stroke there, and in less than six minutes, Lewis paints a portrait of John Lennon.

A sketch made by Shawn Lewis using a fountain pen (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

Collectors’ edition

At Apsara, one wooden showcase is a treasure trove for collectors. Alongside Mont Blanc Generation, Parker 51, and Lamy Dialog, collectors come looking for Indian fountain pens. However, Naidu notes that it’s foreigners who particularly ask for Indian pens. “Airmail Pens retail their stock abroad under the name of Wality Pens. There are so many foreigners who ask for Wality. Other Indian companies in demand are Ratnam Pen Works and Kale Pens,” he says, adding that brand name is still the king when it comes to collectible pens.

Engineering student Sanay Shah has a collection of Indian-made fountain pens; he buys old stock and refurbishes them (Photo: Arundhati Chatterjee)

Sanay Shah (19), an engineering student, is also championing the cause of Indian-made fountain pens. He shows us a section of his collection — Airmails, Kales, Kim and Company, Ratnams — at his Juhu apartment. He buys old stock from the companies and refurbishes them for his collection.

The avid collector is also a hobby pen maker. “My grandparents were mechanical engineers. So I have always been fascinated with machines. Before I joined college, with a little help from the Internet, I learnt to make fountain pens,” says Shah, who has already made 40 fountain pens, priced between Rs 7,000 and Rs 10,000, depending on the finish and the nib.

A handcrafted pen by Sanay Shah (Photo: Sanay Shah )

Shah’s clientele is at least twice his age. “Young people find it a hassle to refill ink. Also, fountain pens require proper maintenance. You cannot drop it and expect it to work,” he says.

Besides a taste in old-world things, starting a pen collection could potentially require a fair bit of money. The manager at one of the Flora Fountain shops is busy taking photos on his phone as we enter. A big, imposing black box sits on the counter, with a Sheaffer branding. We peep in. Inside sits a shiny, heavily engraved fountain pen. “How much is that one for?” we ask. “Custom Sheaffer, solid gold, worth Rs 18 lakh,” he says. But he hastily shuts the lid when he realises we’re journalists. As we leave, he’s on his phone, striking deals like he were selling contraband in an ’80s Bollywood movie.

Gold Sheaffers might not be for everyone. But there’s enough out there to start a collection right now.