I've always had mixed feelings about Delhi. It's a nightmare of hassle and hustle; then again, you can get anything in Delhi. The Red Fort I found very disappointing; Qutb Minar, on the other hand, amazed me. The railway station and the busy roads are a nightmare; but you can get almost anywhere on the metro. Some days I love it, other days I hate it.
I think it was a 'hate' day when I went looking for pens.
I started by taking the metro to Nehru Place, hoping that Pen Corner would deliver me some vintage pens. I was rather disappointed. There was a nice vintage Pilot with a super broad nib – I hadn't seen many Japanese pens in India, other than the Pilot 78G which pops up occasionally, and cheaply. I also saw a rather sweet Parker, but the price seemed quite high (2,000 rupees for a Parker 45 flighter; and I already have quite a few of them). Pen Corner do carry Airmail/Wality, but of course the price is considerably higher than buying wholesale in Mumbai. I left disappointed, but I'm glad to say I found a Lebanese restaurant called Kabir'z nearby which delivered me an excellent meal for about the same price as a Baoer Sonnet clone.
I next headed to Connaught Place. Lots of expensive pens here, but no Indian ones. And I really hate Connaught Place. First of all I was chatted up by a sleazy Nepali. Standard chat-up lines.
"You are a very attractive woman." (Really?)
"How old are you? Thirty-five?" (Highly flattering, and of course intended to be so.)
"You know, I do tantric massage, very relaxing."
(Do I really need to explain the euphemistic nature of the phrase "tantric massage"? It hasn't got a lot to do with tantra and I suspect the massage element is fairly attenuated.)
"My name is Rohit. What is your name?"
So it was Rohit. I thought I'd recognised him. He'd tried to chat me up with exactly the same lines two years ago. Mind you (and rather depressingly) I seem to remember he'd thought I was only thirty, back then. I must be ageing very fast.
I cut the spiel in mid flow. Too busy. Flight tonight. (That was a lie.) Got to go.
Unfortunately I probably should have kept him in tow, since now I was a prey to every tout in creation, all wanting me to go to their Cottage Industries shop.
"Does it sell fountain pens?" I asked.
"Very good shop, very good prices."
"I want a fountain pen."
There followed an enumeration of all the lovely things I could buy at said Cottage Industries, which included saris, furniture, incense, and bedlinen, but the words 'fountain' and 'pen' were for some reason absent... in the end I had to resort to quite incredible rudeness to get the guys to go away.
And I'm afraid all I found was Chinese bling, or on the other hand Lamy, which I love, but at the same prices I could pay at home. (Which given what my bank charges for foreign currency probably meant I'd end up paying more.)
Delhi's final chance; I headed for Nai Sarak. If you're looking for Chinese pens, which I wasn't, Nai Sarak delivers at much lower prices than Connaught Place; Sachdeva Stationers, for instance, had a Baoer Sonnet clone for 150 rupees which would have cost 380 in the more up-market shops. (Some of the Nai Sarak shops, though, only sell in wholesale quantities.) Besides, I had time for a rasmalai from one of my favourite places, Shyam Sweets in Chawri Bazar.
The pickings were not particularly good until I found Serwex Pens and its proprietor, the charming Vipin Mehra. I ended up buying three boxes of pens, including a box of desk pens with bright golden stems that I simply couldn't resist. Mr Mehra is an English literature graduate and we chatted about DH Lawrence (loathed), TS Eliot (loved), and Edmund Spenser (whose poetry I suggested Mr Mehra should give a second chance). We talked about the hill country of Himachal Pradesh, which I'd just come from and where his son was going on a trekking holiday; son, a lawyer, probably won't come into the pen business, but does at least use a fountain pen. We talked about the vicissitudes of the pen business, and he told me how well he was doing with his distributorship for Dom's pencils.
"Made in Gujarat. It's a new company, only started three years ago, and it's doing very well. Excellent quality pencils."
I gather he provides many schools with most of their requirements.
I had hardly noticed how quickly the time was passing. Finally, Delhi had delivered! From disappointment to delight in one afternoon.
On my way back, I noticed Vij Stationery Mart with its neat pigeonholes of bound ledgers and account books. As soon as I showed an interest, I was an honoured guest; staff were sent off on missions to the shop next door or the warehouse down the road, to show me different sizes, different papers, different styles. I was shown a huge hotel register fully bound in red leather, with elegant gold tooling; I know a thing or two about binding, and it was the real deal – all the little details completely right. It would have cost me only slightly more than £15; apparently only two were ever made, one for a top class hotel, and this second one on spec. I simply didn't have enough room left in my rucksack (or, I suspect, enough weight allowance on my flight).
However I did leave with two leather bound notebooks and three green cloth bound account books, all for less than 500 rupees, and all packed neatly in a brown paper parcel.
(If you want to spend more, and you don't want to use a fountain pen, you can buy books bound in sari silks with hand made paper pages and little silk ties to keep them closed. Most tourists love them. But the handmade paper snags nibs, and I really don't want a book I have to untie and unwrap every time I want to write something in it.)
As I was leaving, I took out my notebook to jot down the price of the books I'd bought.
"That's one of ours!"
Well, that was a surprise; I'd bought it in Leh, over a thousand kilometres north in the cool Himalayas.
"Turn it over. Shipra. See, it says Shipra. That's us."
So it was. India, yet again, had proved itself to be a very small country indeed when it came to the things that mattered.