Sulekha and Fountain Pens
The other day, I noticed that a colleague of mine was using a fountain pen. It has been ages since I even saw one, so I took a nice long look at it. It was not the sort of leaking ink pens we used to have in our school days, but a designer pen, pretty expensive. Apparently it is the in thing nowadays to use fountain pens once more, but not the common or garden variety; one must use expensive branded ones. The ink too has to be something other than the royal blue that we were so used to in our student days, purple, or green is the colour of choice.
It took me back to a long forgotten part of our school life. One of the things we had to compulsorily do in the morning while packing our books was to fill the fountain pen with ink. Mostly we used to have to unscrew the top of the pen and then use a dropper to fill the reservoir. If one overfilled it, it invariably dripped all over the table and we always had an inky rag handy for these accidents. More expensive pens had a rubber self filler which was used to suck up the ink from the bottle. My dad had a Sheaffer pen which we were not allowed to touch. Its nib had (allegedly) a gold tip and this was said to give a smooth writing experience. Our pens however were much less fancy. The nibs used to write well for the first month or so, but soon all sorts of problems used to happen. First the nibs used to get clogged. Often it was not the fault of the manufacturers because we used these pens for many things other than writing: it was used to stab each other and various other activities. The only way we knew to unclog it was to shake it vigorously. This often led to an unclogged nib, but also a line of ink blots either on the paper, or if one was incautious on the back of the classmate in front of you. I still remember one of my classmates shaking his pen in frustration and a line of ink stains appearing on the white trousers of the class teacher. It is one of the high points of my school life. Most school boys had a pocket stained with ink which had leaked form a pen. It was a badge of honour! There was a Bengali saying: “Ink on your fingers, ink on your face, Son, have you been writing today?” which exactly described our predicament. (Sorry for the atrocious translation!!). Incidentally ingestion of enough of this ink could be fatal. There is report in Indian Pediatrics where an 11 year old girl died after ingesting 30 ml of Sulekha ink!!
We used to use President pens, a local brand that held enough ink to convey all our knowledge to the examiners during exams: one of our biggest nightmares used to be the chance of running out of ink while writing our test papers! The king of pens used to be Parker in those days. Sheaffer’s was also a close second, but we never graduated to these luxuries. Long before we could even think of buying one of these, ballpoint pens made a triumphant entry and the era of fountain pens was at an end.
All over India there were two principal brands of ink used. One was Sulekha, the other Quink. My vote was always for Sulekha,. This brand was one of the outshoots of the Swadeshi days. Two brothers, Nanigopal and Sankaracharya Mitra set out to sell ink that was made by their wives Purnima and Urmila and sister in law Kalpana in their home in Rajsahi. The brand was named by Rabindranath Tagore who gave it the name Sulekha. They soon moved to Calcutta where they set up a factory in Bowbazar in the heart of the city, and later moved to Jadavpur. Later they set up two more factories in Sodepur and Ghaziabad. As the ball point revolution took place, Sulekha was unable to move with the times and was closed down in 1988 and went into liquidation in 1993.The good news is that it reopened in 2005 this time to make computer inks. I was reading somewhere that they also make small amounts of writing ink.
Despite the new resurgence of fountain pens, I have no intentions to return to those days. It may be fashionable, but I prefer the convenience of the good old ball point pen!