Fountain pens for some – fountain of pains for others!
Let’s face it – your children and my children don’t use the fountain pen. They don’t even write, preferring to key in the words. And nine out of the ten people who actually buy fountain pens in India do so to actually use one as an accessory – something to rest in their pockets, preferably with the snow-capped crown visible. Naturally, when they do write, if at all, the pen is used either to add flourish to their signatures or to scribble their names as an instrument to while away time, for idle doodling.
Simple economics will tell you that when demand becomes a trickle, the supply will naturally dry out and that is exactly what has happened. None of the names that ruled the roost as fountain pen makers of repute in India in the past are in business now and those who survive are literally gasping for breath. Yes, new players have come in, but in general, neither can they fill the existing void, nor do they have the finesse to fit into the finials of the past masters. But more of them later.
This moribund industry, one thought, got a fresh lease of life as it were, when the proliferation of the internet started creating in its wake a backlash against the digital domination of our lives and young people started going “retro”, picking up the fountain pen as a potent symbol of their protest, as a means of giving vent to their feelings. The net also zapped the physical boundaries, with pens that were earlier being sold as junk (and still had few takers) suddenly finding a ready market in far pavilions. We Indians were not too late in jumping on the bandwagon and overnight “pen clubs” proliferated with, being a member in one becoming the flavour of the month. Just like Calligraphy crash courses. And Copperplate writing.
But even as the world moved on, the old timers, the real vanguards of the Indian fountain pen making legacy, are still stuck in a time-wrap. They still turn the same ebonite they learnt to turn in the beginning of their careers decades ago and have no fresh designs to offer, forget about even experimenting with newer materials. Their service is terrible to put things mildly with most acting as though they are doing you a favour by selling their pens – customer satisfaction, not being something that they can call themselves to be adept at. Yes, they have jacked up the prices to keep up with the times but have precious else to offer. The time is ticking away for them and it is unfortunate that with them, will go the last vestiges of our inky past. Try buying one of their pens in the open market and you will understand, just how painful the entire rigmarole is.
On the other end are the nouveau. They get their barrels turned by third parties, add Jowo / Bock nibs bought in bulk, fit in a Schneider converter and bingo – they give themselves the right to carry the Tricolour. Some even highlight the imported resins they use in the barrel and cap and swamp the net with pictures of pen-lovers singing their paeans. This is the glam end, where being an assembler gives you the right to sermonise about the prowess of the Indian fountain pen making industry and even add, as to how exactly one is now competing with the best in the world! Quaint, but true.
Also representing this end proudly are the drifters who have come in from other trades and offer hideous metal contraptions that resemble door handles with divine motifs etched firmly on them. These “blessings in disguise” are aimed at a particular segment of the marriage market where they are destined never to be inked but remain as objects of vermilion smeared reverence. They too move with fair ease among the “collectors” of exotica, if not among the scribes. But who is complaining?
There are, off course many decent fountain pen manufacturers, ones that have brands that are decades old to boot – but they are complacent with their OEM orders and bulk supplies to the lowest rungs of the market. They are neither interested in building upon the salience of their brands nor are they interested in creating a market by scaling up. Who will shake them out of their slumber?
Okay, the volumes do not justify a lot of things and the fountain pen manufacturers are being thrown into the deep end of the pool with their hands tied. The answers, and one will not have to go to China for them, can be had in Taiwan. Just see how they have leapfrogged in the last two decades? And please remember, they didn’t have a fountain pen making legacy that is half as exciting as the one bestowed upon us by our forefathers.
The Parker Duofold, the Havana Cigar and the Conway Steawart Churchill – will somebody please tell our turners that there is more to the world? That there were more in India itself than what they choose to copy blindly? Well, there are exceptions, I admit, but exceptions do not make the rule.
There is also a segment where old fountain pens, collected from the garbage pickers are turned into fankinpens, or even better, palmed off as antiques and classics to unsuspecting aficionados, often killing for life, their desire to buy another fountain pen. And they, these charlatans, now have the net to fall back upon, showing pictures and so-called global ruling prices to make their killings.
Has any of these movers and shakers taken any conscious step to popularise writing? Popularise writing with a fountain pen? To encourage the children to take up the pen? To explain the sheer psychological advantages that writing with a fountain pen accord? Broken into the Corporate India’s bastions to induce them to take up the cause of writing and fountain pens?
Can India boast of one mid-range home grown, home designed, home produced fountain pen that we can proudly put in our pockets? Only one? Anyone out there who can take the challenge? Should I hang my head in shame?
Forget about the larger picture, think vested interests. Here, even websites of reputed players seldom work, emails go unanswered and people ask buyers to contact them on whatsapp to conclude sales, as it is off-grid. Pathetic? Perhaps, but then again, such apathy and callousness, I guess are what characterises us. After all we get what we deserve, down to the use and throw pens!
The Indian fountain pen industry is literally in a quagmire. Any ideas how we can first put it on a life support system and then take it forward? Anyone? Please write in, it is time we started exchanging ideas.
My sincere apologies to all the ruffled quills (feathers)? I am a simple lover of fountain pens and find the state of affairs a tad bit, shall we say, disconcerting? I know I have generalised things and the same yardstick cannot be applied to all – that is precisely why I am not naming names. I write from personal experience and sincerely hope that I am wrong – for the sake of all you guys with your choked feeds, burpy nibs and chipped laminations, et all. But more than anything else I write for the love of the fountain pen, for India!