A lighthearted take on fountain pens and the status associated with owning certain pens.
I love fountain pens. They’re one of the little joys of life and I’ve always only used fountain pens. I’ll write more about all that in another post. Today I have some stories to share.
The incidents I am about to narrate go back thirty years, so things may have changed now, but when I was growing up, we switched from using pencils to pens when we got to the 5th standard (grade 5, year 5 or whatever it is called in your part of the world). It had to compulsorily be a fountain pen (or an ink pen, as we called them back then). Apparently ball pens ruined your handwriting, so it had to be a fountain pen. I don’t disagree with that theory.
Towards the end of 4th standard the classroom was abuzz about pens. The teacher had announced that we would be required to purchase a fountain pen and blue ink for the next year. The excitement was immense. We would be like grown ups now. The summer vacation that year was filled with excitement about getting our first pens and inks, learning how to fill ink, use blotting paper and learning to write.
For the first few weeks of the new school year, everyone was talking about pens. There was more to it than just writing though. An immediate social order was established depending on the pen you had. The lucky ones who got imported Parker pens were considered cool and were at the top of the order. Then came the people who had the Chinese made Hero pens with the fine nib. These were available in every stationery store (well, there was just one in the town where I lived), but more expensive than the Indian pens. That was the middle class. Like the majority of the class, I was at the bottom of the pen hierarchy, with the locally (Indian) made Airmail pens that leaked like a runny nose. You could identify the kids with these pens from their ink stained hands and clothes. Even the lowest rung of this ladder looked down upon the younger, pencil users in the lower classes. We were still better than them.
For most, the excitement died down in a couple of months and by the end of the year, most people had moved on from talking about their pens. However, the established social hierarchy stayed on.
Two years later, when we were in the 7th standard, we were allowed to use ball pens. Did that mean good handwriting is not required after a certain age?
Almost everyone jumped at the opportunity to switch to ball point pens. They were convenient bits of plastic. No more inky hands and a messy ink filling process. No more vigorous shaking of the pen when it didn’t write, rendering your neighbour’s face all blue and leaving tiny blue dots on everyone’s clothes. No need to wipe your pen on your hair when you didn’t have blotting paper at hand. These ball point pens had little bits of plastic that you changed when you ran out of ink. Simple and easy. Use and throw in some cases. Maybe it was the convenience or maybe it was because the cheapest, most commonly available ball point pen was a Reynolds, which was French. Imported!
I don’t even remember switching or asking for a ball pen though. I haven’t moved on even after three decades and it’s very unlikely I ever will. I still love fountain pens and use them every day. I don’t have great handwriting, so that theory might be flawed, but I enjoy the process of inking, maintaining, writing and most of all, drawing with fountain pens.
When everyone was switching to ball pens, I got a Hero pen for the grand sum of 21 rupees. It was terrific. My handwriting was small and the fine nib of the Hero suited me perfectly. It didn’t leak like the Airmails and it even had a squeeze-to-fill inking mechanism as opposed to the fill the barrel with an eyedropper that the Airmail had. Did a shiny new Hero pen upgrade my social status in the classroom? Nope. The hierarchy that had been established stuck and even the Parker pen people at the top of the hierarchy had switched to (presumably imported) ball point pens. If anything, this was a downgrade compared to getting a ball pen.
I never took to ball point pens. The Hero was reliable and good. Then one day, everything changed. My father was gifted a lovely German pen by someone and he promptly passed that on to me. It was thin, black, all metal unlike the Hero. It had a piston filler, which was very unique at that time and more importantly, it was so smooth, I can still remember how it just skimmed over the paper and flowed so beautifully. This was way better than a Parker. Surely, having this pen would upgrade my status? Nobody cared. If I had this pen a couple of years earlier, I would have been the most popular person in class and who knows, life may have been different. At that age, being popular and socially accepted in school changed everything.
I didn’t care about that. The pen was a marvel. Unfortunately, I don’t even remember the name of that pen. I only remember that it was made in “West Germany”. It was so good, I used it for the next 5 years. Every. Single. Day. It was a sad day when the pen fell from my hand and landed on the nib. That’s it. A replacement nib was not available, so I had to say goodbye to what I still consider the best pen I’ve ever had. I just wish I knew its name.
A year earlier, my maternal uncle had gifted me a lovely Sheaffer. It had a beautiful nib and wrote almost as well as the German pen. I switched to that, but unfortunately it didn’t last long. Someone stole it on the bus to school. I then had to switch back to my old Hero pen and it didn’t disappoint.
All these pen changes and my social status didn’t change one bit. I did make a couple of friends because they, like me, were still using fountain pens, but we were all outcasts in a way. Things were no different with us though. We secretly looked down upon all the ball point pen users like they were outcasts.
The next year I even wrote my all important 12th standard exams using that Hero pen, against the well meaning advice of everyone around saying it’s not good to write such an important exam using a fountain pen - what if the paper gets wet for some reason before it is graded? I’ll fail the exams. A ball point pen was safer (so obviously the handwriting theory all those years back was a hoax). I did carry a ball point pen to the exams, but didn’t write a single word with it. The Hero was my hero. I got new Hero pens and those lasted my through 4 years of college and beyond.
By now the pen was just a pen. I didn’t use them much and when I did, it was a Hero. How I went from that to owning many pens and using them every day is better left for another post. Back to social stratification.
A quick search for fountain pens on the Internet will lead you down a rabbit hole of information. There are so many people genuinely interested in fountain pens and then there are some who just want to show off their expensive pens. Again, there seems to be some kind of social order there. Not everywhere though. Like with everything these days the Internet has good, bad and everything in between. I don’t consider myself a collector of fountain pens, but I do have a small collection. All of my pens are on the lower side of the price range. That and the number of pens I have (17 at last count), puts me at the bottom of the Internet social order of fountain pen collectors.
A few years back, I met this interesting person at a meeting. He was showing off a shiny, expensive Mont Blanc fountain pen in his pocket. A very modest person. When someone asked him about the pen, he bragged about how expensive and good it was and how it was more valuable than some other person’s net worth (who was being talked about in the meeting - ugh, I hate meetings). I sat quietly in the corner, not bothering to point out that it was a cheap Chinese knock-off. In my pocket was a Platinum Preppy, a cheap plasticky Japanese fountain pen that wrote like a dream. Once again, I found myself at the bottom of the social ladder established by my choice of writing equipment. I like it here.