Mumbai, circa 1979. A group of schoolgirls gather around a classmate, gawking at Sapna Melwani’s latest acquisition from Hong Kong. The object of desire is a magnetic pencil box in neon pink, covered in a cushiony material and opening on both sides, one for regular pencils and the other for colours. In pre-liberalised India, even in an uppity south Mumbai school, you could count on one hand the number of kids who possessed fancy ‘Made in China’ stationery. The majority used plastic pencil boxes priced at Rs 2 to hold their black and red Nataraj pencils or Apsara’s white Flora pencils with delicate pink flowers. Erasers were from Sandoz and resembled industrial rubber. Colour pencils were an unchanging set of 12 from Camlin that had a picture of a little boy with floppy hair on the yellow box.
Despite the limited range, stationery was a preoccupation in junior school. Pencil tips were sharpened until they became weapons that could be used to poke someone and make them yelp. Spirals of wood shavings from such activity were collected for their artistic value. Scented erasers were tested for quality assurance by rubbing the hell out of a page, until small heaps of rubber shavings were produced and the paper wore thin.
Cut to 2008, Delhi. Some things haven’t changed. My 6-year-old daughter is obsessive about stationery, as I understand are her friends. Expensive toys or outings can’t send her into raptures the way a new 64-piece art kit can. New pencils are diminished in stature within a matter of hours as they are mercilessly sharpened in the quest for the perfect lead point.
What has changed is that today’s under-10s are aided by a dizzying array of options. We seem to be witnessing an interesting phase in the evolution of stationery in India. Cheap, Colourful and Chinese are the three Cs of the stationery world. There’s ‘glitter’ — shiny powder in different colours that you can use to adorn your artwork. It was banned at home after we found that it flies all over the place and sticks to everyone’s face and hair. That’s when my daughter found out from a friend that ‘glitter’ is also available in a more parent-friendly package. Young Prakriti squeezes some on to the paper in funky designs, lets it dry and produces some edgy primary school art. Let’s just say
I remembered why stationery was such fun. And it seems to have doubled for these kids of liberalised India.