Essay: On having a passion for fountain pens
A few days back, the fountain pen lovers’ group on Reddit woke up to this. “A former Finance Director at a hospital supplies company has been jailed after we found he siphoned off £2.7 million from its accounts − and spent £500,000 of the money on luxury fountain pens.” The press release from 6 June was issued by the West Midlands Police in the United Kingdom. It affected me, and not because the jailed man’s name sounded Indian.
Robbery? Tch. Still, it’s that guy’s karma, not my problem.
But that half a million pounds apparently fetched only about 180 “luxury fountain pens from high-end makers like Mont Blanc (sic) and Philippe Patak (sic)”? What an outrage. It’s enough to turn a middle-class man towards revolution most dire.
Or, you know, to a website selling affordable fountain pens.
Montblanc Shmontblanc, anyway. Sure, a Montblanc has a nib made of 18K gold. It is timelessly beautiful, cloud-smooth to write with, and a joy to hold, or so I imagine. Important political and corporate documents have been signed with its flagship model, making it a historical artefact. That its cost probably exceeds most monthly salaries makes its ownership a feat. So, yes, any Montblanc is what fountain pen hobbyists would call a ‘grail pen’. Yet, there might be disadvantages to wielding the magic wand. Perhaps using it stokes your vanity. Besides, I am not a minister or CEO, but a writer; with a Montblanc in hand, I might get performance anxiety. So I am better off without one, okay? Once I look past the gold shimmer and whiffs of history, I realize that Montblancs, too, are pens. Their magic comes from your mind. Dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghaalib yeh khayaal achcha hai. Etc.
It is with a number of cheap-ish fountain pens that I do the first drafts of most of my journalistic pieces, and in every session I find myself transported to delight. Scratch ‘delight’. The word is ‘pleasure’, powerful pleasure. Using a pen on paper grounds the writing process in your body. It slows you down and makes you mindful, which can also be pleasant. With a fountain pen gliding on paper made for fountain pens, writing is even more pleasurable. It’s a sensuous experience in which the colour of the ink, the tactile sensations of the grip of the pen, the feedback of the nib, and the contents of your mind all work in concert on the amphitheatre of the page.
It’s why I take some journalistic assignments: they provide use for my fountain pens. For some strange reason, though, I seldom use fountain pens to write poetry; my two little poetry books were born on the LCD screen. Perhaps poetry on its own is enough, without the added intensity of the fountain pen experience? I don’t know. As of today, I mainly use fountain pens to take notes for book reviews that appear regularly in mainstream media. If the book is dry, the juicy fountain pen experience makes up for it. And if the book is interesting, I perhaps work for a longer time that I would without using fountain pens.
So, a fair amount of time passes in plotting the next purchase, or simply getting vicarious delight while going deeper into the rabbit hole of fountain pen blogs, reviews of pens and inks on YouTube, and websites of fountain pen sellers. Despite this, and especially if the single ladies among you are wondering, I also have a life. But I now know a bit about the hobby. The kinds of nibs I like (the broad and stub nibs), the inks I like (unusual, friendly colours, with shading and preferably sheen), and the paper I like (the one that best shows the features of the ink). And I now have definite preferences about designs and materials. Acrylic will do fine, but I wax rhapsodically about pens made with ebonite, which is hard rubber, and which feels lovely in the hand, almost alive.
Every pen has its own feel, a personality which it communicates to your grip. That feel depends on a swathe of factors from materials used to nib to ink to manner of manufacture. The first pen I bought was a feat of machine-made precision, which, to me, also made it staid and boring. I gave it away, having used it for a few months. These days, the pens I like the most are handmade. Handmade pens aren’t necessarily better than machine-made ones -- even handmade pens involve the use of some machine -- but they seem to have more personality. I like my pens to have an artisanal touch.
The pandemic wasn’t why I picked up the hobby. It was before the lockdown that my first fountain pen and bottle of ink came, in February 2020. (Perhaps an online video inspired the purchase?) The hobby partly sustained me during the lockdown, by temporarily lighting up the dreariness and isolation of home confinement. I kept at it. I have, since that first purchase, built a small cosmopolitan collection of fountain pens and bottled inks. The pens are from India, Taiwan, Germany, and the USA; the inks from India, the UK, Japan, Germany, and France. The paper is Indian and foreign-made. I have eight fountain pens and eight inks, one ink for one pen. As of today, that is. The number eight is nice, but ten is better, wouldn’t you say? Some hobbyists have hundreds of pens and inks. Just saying.
A couple of days back, I placed an order for a Indian pen made of ebonite and fitted with a German nib. It will take four weeks to arrive, which is okay; one artisanal pen maker from India, working with wood and other exotic materials, has a wait list of up to a year. I am already hunting for a good ink for my latest purchase. (If anyone has suggestions, I am @suhitkelkar on Twitter.) It will be my pen-ink pair number nine.
My tenth fountain pen might be on its way. It happened like this. A few weeks back, I put on Facebook a photo of my fountain pen collection with a short descriptive note. In reply, one of my Facebook friends left a comment offering to gift me a pre-used pen. I would have jumped at any such offer, but now I had a special reason. I gratefully assented. It turned out he was giving me a Montblanc.
A few weeks later, I received the package. I ravenously opened it, and beheld my first dream pen. The thing is small, black with chrome appointments, well-proportioned, beautiful, and, to my surprise, a ballpoint.
Suhit Kelkar is an independent journalist. He lives in Mumbai.