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India’s economic journey: A fountain-pen story

Bibek Debroy
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Recently, an author came to present me with a copy of her new book. As I always do in situations like this, I asked her to sign it for me and was pleasantly surprised when she produced a fountain-pen. I know a doctor who is in his 80s. Medical prescriptions are known for their illegibility. This doctor’s prescription is a sight to behold and yes, he swears by a fountain-pen. In old, 19th century files, I chanced upon some correspondence and the calligraphy (there is no other word for it) is something to treasure. (This might not even have been a fountain-pen. The letters were probably written with a nib-pen, with the nib being dipped in an ink-pot, there being nothing to store ink inside the pen.) There are plenty of accounts of India’s economic transition. Such accounts become more alive if one uses real-life examples and I think someone should write a piece on the decline and recent rise of the fountain-pen. In initial years of school, we weren’t allowed to use pens. It had to be pencils, also used in classes on cursive writing. At some point, we were allowed to graduate to fountain-pens, ball-point pens being nowhere in the picture. To emphasise what I said about real-life examples, I think Britain’s war-time rationing is described phenomenally well in Richmal Crompton’s “Just William” series, much better than any academic’s laboured depiction.

When William was in school, it was the era of ink-pots and blotting paper. Our school-days were a little later. Blotting paper was still around, but you didn’t need to carry ink-pots to school. The fountain-pens could store ink, but they didn’t yet possess syringes or suction mechanisms that could suck the ink up. Instead, every morning, you used an eye-dropper to fill the pen with ink. Don’t ask me for names of these fountain-pen brands. Obviously, they must have had names, but these names weren’t brands in the sense we use the word “brand”. There were certainly branded fountain-pens, Parker for one. But they weren’t for us. Though fountain-pens weren’t branded, the ink certainly was. It was, and had to be, Sulekha. Sulekha Works, started initially in 1934 in what is now Bangladesh, was identified with self-reliance and the Independence movement, and had the implicit blessings of Mahatma Gandhi. Therefore, every bottle of Sulekha ink arrived with the mandatory picture of Gandhiji. Temporarily, Sulekha Works closed down, but has started again. When I looked at the types of Sulekha ink now available, I was surprised at the choice—Black, Blue Black, Crystal Violet, Emerald Green, Flaming Orange, Master Brown, Moss Green, Royal Blue, Scarlet Red, Shocking Pink and Turquoise Blue. In our school-days, Royal Blue was the default option, though I think Black was around.

Lamenting the inferior quality consequent to self-reliance, I have heard the late Abid Hussain say, many years ago, “We produced fountain-pens that were more fountains than pens.” For fountain-pens, this sounds a bit harsh. But yes, those fountain-pens didn’t screw on properly. They leaked, smudged our fingers and stained our pockets, evidence we were studying hard. Nibs got clogged. They had to be taken out, cleaned and re-inserted, or replaced with new nibs. As we moved up in school, technology changed and was regarded as a great marvel. You no longer needed eye-droppers. A suction mechanism arrived on the side of the pen, eventually over-taken by a syringe at the bottom. No more smudged fingers, though occasional staining of pockets continued. For a reason I no longer recall, the default choice for ink became Quink, not Sulekha. I suspect it had to do with quality and choice. To appreciate the Abid Hussain comment, do realise trade and technology policy were involved. That’s the reason I said fountain-pens are a good case study for tracking evolution of economic policy. For instance, import of ink was on the prohibited list, because domestic installed capacity was more than estimated demand. After all, there was a shortage of foreign exchange. Therefore, ink meant domestic brands (such as Sulekha or Camel), joint ventures (JVs) with foreign equity participation (Pilot, Quink) or completely foreign brands (Waterman). Ditto for fountain-pens and there were only two JVs with foreign participation—Pilot, Waterman. Trade policy, technology policy and licensing restrictions affected choice in the market.

While we were still in school, early ball-point pens arrived. Because of the reasons mentioned, they weren’t as good as ones around now. But, in any event, they were prohibited in school. They were believed to ruin the handwriting, as those early ball-point pens no doubt did. Until we passed out of university, it was fountain-pens all the day. Our children grew up with whiffs of liberalisation and technology improved for both, fountain-pens, as well as ball-point pens. They weren’t allowed to use ball-point pens in school, but the default ink now became Camel, though it was now available in cartridges. At some point, ball-point pens were recognised for legal purposes. Many people will probably give up writing by hand and either type, or dictate to their favourite form of technology. However, for those limited few who still prefer to write by hand, I am happy the fountain-pen still survives. I don’t mean the high-end pens alone; there are several brands that are relatively cheap. As for ball-point pens, those with liquid ink clearly shouldn’t be damned as much as the earlier versions were.

Author is Chairman, PM’s Economic Advisory Council

Views are personal