The Inky Path

We all know that Pen is mightier than the sword. However, did you know that, not all pens are equal! The ink pen, a.k.a fountain pen, is undoubtedly, the mightiest!

camel inkSocial media has a funny way of taking you down the memory lane. Just yesterday, in one of the groups I follow, someone posted an image of an old Camel Ink bottle. It opened the gates to my memory lane, nostalgia rushing over me, much like the beautiful blue fluid that always flowed royally through the nibs of our pens. 

Most schools had a policy of allowing the use of pens from fourth standard (grade). Until third standard, we were only allowed to use pencils. It was a huge deal for us back then, not very different from the elementary to middle school graduations that are held today. During the summer break between third standard and fourth, most of us would develop the urge to start writing a diary (journal). Everyone knew it was merely an excuse to obtain the highly desired, Fountain Pen, early, before school started.

Hours would be spent, copiously practicing handwriting styles, pen-holding grips, and so on. Back then, handwriting, especially cursive, had a very important place, not only in our minds and the society, but also for good marks! There would be handwriting competitions, tests, and those who were very good at it, would land the much-coveted task of writing the date, word of the day, thought of the day, and the subject on the blackboard in class!! Moreover, the ones who topped the handwriting tests were treated like celebrities, for they’d often be called out of an ongoing class to write something on the main school board, to welcome some important guest. During festivals and school events, these handwriting celebrities got a free pass to miss class (plural, several classes sometimes), because they would be busy writing instructions and beautiful messages on the main blackboard! Who doesn’t want a good excuse to stay out of class and be the teacher’s pet?

Pic: Vinay Shinde

So, the summer of third-to-fourth would see heads buried in notebooks, little hands working hard to create a signature handwriting style that they could manage, and maintain, all throughout. Some alphabets, like a, i, o, z, received extra attention, because they could be customized to look special, and with some good luck and hard work, spectacular. 

The day schools reopened, all fourth standard classes would be noisy with excitement, sounds of gushing over whose pen was the most beautiful, and whose handwriting looked beautiful. Most of us would have received older pens from our parents, for back then (even now), fountain pens were expensive. Parents would therefore give hand-me-down pens, with the carrot of buying a new pen if we managed to not lose the pen in a month, or if our scores in the first test were good, and so on.

Then, there were some, like me, who had received a hand-me-down pen that was far more elegant and smoother than the newer ones. My baba has always had a love for amazing pens. His collection, at least back then, was limited, but classy. I was one of the few people in class who had actually wanted a hand-me-down pen! I still remember how astonished I was when he handed me not one, but two fountain pens! One was the fairly common and sturdy Pilot, which I was supposed to carry to school in my pencil box, now to be called the ‘pen box’. The second, my eyes were wide with awe, was a true-as-gold, Parker! Please note, this was the early 90s in India when brands were few and imported brands were considered luxury.

I was being entrusted with baba’s Parker pen! If we’d had social media back then, the moment where the pen exchanged hands would have been flaunt-worthy! I would have asked aai to click a few thousand pictures of this ‘Kodak moment’ and shared them for an entire year, that precious was it!

A pen is only as effective as the ink inside it. Back then, the only brand of ink commonly available was Camel Ink. I still remember the day I first went shopping for my very own bottle of ink. For weeks after that, the glass bottle, with the blue fluid inside it, held a place of pride on my study table, the two pens carefully arranged beside it, a syringe lying criss cross. I wish I’d had the forethought to at least click some pictures, especially in the mornings, when the rays of sun streamed into my room, casting a halo-like glow on my ink, pen, syringe arrangement.

Our school only allowed the use of blue ink, even though black ink was also available. As an experiment, baba and I once tried using black ink in another fountain pen of his, and quickly realised that it made the pen feel different. Something in the dye of the black ink altered the flow through the nib, and every few words or so, we would have to keep tapping on the pen to get the black ink flowing. Another time, I wondered why my teachers were still using red pencils or red ball pens to grade our tests. Why hadn’t they converted to ink pens? My question roused the scientist in baba, who promptly got some red ink. We tried it on the old pen, and realised that red ink also had the same run as the black ink. (I know it would have been easier to simply pose this question to my aaji, who was a teacher, but that would have been a straight, direct approach. Baba and I, we are partners in crime as far as taking a harder approach is concerned, even if we didn’t need to. Why? Because it is more fun!) This was back then, in the 90s, and I am sure the dyes and pigments have changed now.

The black and red inks made for amazing quill inks, and I remember spending hours experimenting with a few feathers and these two inks, creating my very own versions of art. The two colors shone on plain white papers, as well as the slightly yellowish, vintage-looking papers. Unfortunately, I did not save these attempts, or I might have been an artist by now.

Back to the inks. This left us with one last colour (this post is about my memories of school days, for better understanding, please refer to the British English dictionary). This time, I dove in to the experiment and got a bottle of green ink. Soon, we realised that green and blue inks had a smooth flow. So I began using green ink to write in my diary, while blue was used for school work.

If someone forgot their pen at home, then they would have to either borrow a ballpoint pen or use a pencil. No one loaned their fountain pens, for it was believed that fountain pens took on the character, and handwriting of the person who owns it. Usually, if someone had used your fountain pen without your knowledge, you would still come to know, for it would suddenly develop a different feel while writing, and your handwriting would be affected for a few lines until the pen could adapt itself to your style and grip again!

Pic: Vinay Shinde

The ink would run out after a few pages, and we would usually refill our pens during recess (lunch break). It was a messy affair, with inexpert, hurried hands inserting the syringe into the bottle, pulling the piston to draw in the ink, then holding the needle into the pen’s tube and pushing the plunger to fill it. More often than not, someone or the other would topple their bottle, sending rivulets of blue ink over the classroom floor!

The hand-me-down pen I used had a cartridge fitting, which meant all I needed to do if my ink ran out, was to change the cartridge! I usually carried a couple of spare cartridges in my pen box. Empty cartrdiges were taken back home, where I had the leisure to fill them up using the syringe and ink bottle without the rush of the school bell ringing to signal the end of recess.

Most of us would have mastered the art of refilling ink in pens by sixth standard, and after that, blue-colored classroom floors became a thing of the past as far as we were concerned, barring an occassional accident. As time progressed, so did technology, and by the time the new millenium started, fountain pens were fading into history, to be replaced by ballpoint pens, which were light-weight, no-mess, and could go for days without refills! Even today, however, important and valuable documents are signed on with fountain pens. The thought of fountain pens conjures up an image of timeless elegance and class.

Pic: Vinay Shinde

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Click here to listen to the story The Inky Path.

By Positive Wordsmith

Reading is my escape from the real world, and writing is my meditation. I hope you enjoy these short stories as much I enjoy writing them. Children's stories, science fiction, and adventure are my favorite genres.

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