Book: Inked in India: Fountain Pens And A Story Of Make And Unmake
Author: Bibek Debroy with Sovan Roy
Bibek Debroy and Sovan Roy have written independently about fountain pens. While they’re fond collectors and users of fountain pens and share the desire to unearth stories of manufacturing of fountain pens and their constituting elements, they came together to write this book by sheer accident.
This one-of-a-kind book is a deeply researched and enriching account that sifts through anecdotes, economic transitions, and writerly sentiments related to using fountain pens. Divided into seven chapters, the book begins with interesting vignettes on the erstwhile vocabulary used for writing instruments. It then slowly establishes what the book is about: the first manufacturers of fountain pens, inks, and nibs in India, and how this industry’s successes and failures were inevitably related to the tectonic shifts in the country’s economics and policy-making from pre-Independence to date.
The authors graciously accept that they haven’t been able to “precisely date the advent of the fountain pen” but what they’re able to capture is the value — not always emotional — that these pens carried for their users. Two incidents are particularly noteworthy. First, the book notes Graham Greene saying that his “two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course…” The second is about the sound thrashing that young Jawaharlal Nehru received from his father when the latter realised that his son had taken away one of his fountain pens. The pen’s make was Swan, which cost about 1.5 lakh rupees.
Besides Nehru, two more national leaders feature in this book: M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. While the former disapproved of the use of fountain pens on the grounds of affordability and to encourage homegrown products, the latter loved them and was “especially fond of Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman pens”.
In rendering such a contextual history in an accessible language, Debroy and Roy offer a brief outline of major developments in the fountain pen industry and commentary on the economic aspects. Be it the establishment of the manufacturer of fountain pen ink — P.M. Bagchi in 1883 or Sulekha exporting its expertise to South Asian and African markets — the book celebrates the many ‘Make in India’ endeavours. But largely, it champions one man in particular: Radhika Nath Saha. The authors note that Saha, who wrote Romance of Pen Industries, “should probably claim the record for producing the first fountain pen in India”.
But the story of fountain pens, the authors contend, is more of an “unmake in India”. They’re sceptical whether the present lot “can take Indian fountain pens to [the] 5G stage,” as the “transition to modern fountain pen manufacturing is still a work in progress.”