I got stuck in Aurangabad the way I had in Indore and Bhopal. I'd been visiting the cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora, and I was waiting for the bus to Ahmedabad. I'd already visited the Aurangabad caves (not a patch on the others, but the views are better), the Bibi ka Maqbara (dismissed by most guidebooks as a mini-Taj Mahal without the good taste – but it holds a wonderful surprise; the tomb is in the crypt, and what you expect to be the ground floor turns out to be only a balcony from which you can look down on the tomb), and the lovely Pachakki waterwheel and pool, and there was nothing left to do in Aurangabad but shop.
I'd asked my rickshaw driver to head for the main bazar, but as we lurched down a side street I saw the word 'pens' written above a shop.
"No, not here, this is not the bazar" – and on he went.
I tried to remember the route in my head. It wasn't easy. Even from three blocks away, where he finally stopped, I got lost a couple of times before I recognised the street. And there was my destination; Abhay Pens.
I only had to look at the counter to see I had arrived, completely by chance, at the right place. A fan of rippled ebonite pens splayed out in one direction, a regiment of bright acrylics marched in the other. There were pencils, there were ball points, but above all, there were fountain pens. And there was a big smile coming my way, too.
Abhay Pens is a three-generation family business. The shop was started in 1971, and a manufacturing business was started in 1976, I was informed by Mr Pathak. The business uses various brand names – Abhay for retail, Moti and Astra for pens. (I subsequently found out that while Abhay is the company's only distributor in India – a pity, since these lovely and imaginatively designed pens deserve to be better known), the manufacturer subcontracts for a number of other brands, both Indian and western.
Out of all the modern Indian pens I bought on this trip, I have three or four favourites. The lovely bold acrylics from Airmail, the huge Guider ebonites, my cheapie Camays (yes, honestly), and the flat top acrylics from Abhay Pens. These are the ones that slightly reminded me of the old Platignum Visi Ink, in really wonderful bright marbled colours. These aren't designs other manufacturers are making, and I wish I'd asked a bit more about where the inspiration for these pens comes from. The ebonites are lovely, too, with either the traditional clip or a more modern style; there are some superb rippled ebonites which I didn't find anywhere else. I bought two of each colour. Greedy! My only quibble would be that the tops and pens for the ebonites don't always match too well in colour or pattern; however, I was allowed to swap tops for one of the pens in green ebonite, to make it swirly-all-over.
The pen business is an odd one. There are pens for using, "daily writing pens", Mr Pathak told me, and that market hasn't done particularly well in the last couple of years. And then there are "gifting pens", of which Abhay Pens has a good selection, including 'glass pens' (actually acrylic), desk pens, and pen stands. Gifts have been good sellers for them recently.
"But it can go either way. We've had some times when daily writing pens sold much better, and gifting pens were not so interesting."
Now I've found that while many businesses in India thrive on haggling, the fountain pen business generally isn't one. (It doesn't stop me trying.) But sometimes, you get something a little extra; and Mr Pathak made me a charming present of two baby pens. They really are tiny, about 8 cm long, made of brown woodgrain ebonite, and he pointed out to me that the tiny clips were actually made out of hair clips. (Nerdily I thought wow, I've now got two eyedroppers that hold less ink than a Kaweco Sport converter!)
And then he said, apropos the fact that the pens really are made in Aurangabad, would I like to visit the factory?
You bet I would. It was a tricky place to find; one of those industrial estates where everything is numbered, but the numbers don't seem to go in any particular order. Tucked away behind the railway, where I'd expected concrete and dust, but found the shade of tall trees and surprisingly small scale buildings, and juice vendors on the street, and eventually – after the rickshaw driver had turned around three or four times – the home of Astra Industries.
Ajit Pathak showed me the plant. The heart of it is a single precision turning machine. The dimensions for each part produced are displayed on a laminated card hung on the machine; the benefit of this quality control was apparent when I tried to swap over the caps of different pens – they all fit, which isn't the case with some of the handmade Indian pens I've bought. The finishing, on the other hand, is done manually.
It's a small plant – five men on the day shift, three on the night shift. It's well stocked with ebonite rods – which have to be ordered oversize, I was told, because it flexes and warps – and acrylic blocks; currently, Astra doesn't make celluloid pens, though they have made a number of samples in celluloid, and are prepared to use the material if required.
Ajit Pathak's office is just off the factory floor. A drink was soon forthcoming – it was a blistering hot day, though not as hot as it gets in Maharashtra – and from the tall filing cabinet came a couple of trays of samples.
I was immediately struck by the magical colours of a celluloid pen; bright red and gold and orange like autumn sunshine. The minimum order size, by the way, is quite low; 100 pens. I'm tempted to grab a batch; assuming the cost price would be similar to the price of pens in the shop, plus excise duties, they could sell for less than £20 here, and I don't think Astra are strangers to the use of Schmidt nibs.
A particularly interesting project was the Waterman safety that Ajit Pathak pulled from his desk drawer. He'd pulled a genuine vintage pen to pieces and was trying to recreate it. The new spiral that had been turned was still a bit rough, and needed some refining, but the copy pen worked. It will be fascinating to see if the safety pen makes a comeback in the modern world.
We talked about different pen brands, and about Mumbai, "the real centre of the industry;" Calcutta, I was told, now only makes cheap pens, while Mumbai makes "the good stuff, like Wality." I was interested to hear that Hero was well regarded; "not like the other Chinese brands, all the other ones have quality problem," he said. And we drank tea, and looked at pens, and one way and another, the afternoon passed quite quickly.