Calcutta seemed at first to offer slim pickings. College Street yielded nothing of interest, while Pen Hospital had one or two nice pens above my budget, and not much else. I picked my partner up from the airport, and we headed off to Sikkim, and then Assam, and forgot all about pens.
Three weeks later, I was back in Calcutta. I'd booked a train to Delhi, to catch a plane to Leh, but I couldn't get a seat on my preferred train for the next three days, which left me with a bit of time to wander around Calcutta.
I was already beginning to hate the Rough Guide and today was no exception. It took me out to the Jain temples near Shyams Bazar but didn't mention they were all closed in the afternoon. (It had failed me exactly the same way on Mount Girnar.) It was getting a bit late anyway, so I decided to head back to my hotel; but hetting off the metro (a blissfully air conditioned carriage) at Esplanade, I thought I might just pop into Pen Hospital first.
The place was buzzing. It's only a little cabin in the narrow yard between high buildings, but it was absolutely crowded; two staff, four customers, and everybody talking and picking up pens and taking pictures.
Now, India is a very large country. I'd spent four months by this point just travelling, and seen four or five states, and met quite a few people; I'd been to Kumbh Mela, and met Indians from all over the country, and French and German tourists, and sadhus and devotees and a priest who had brought his temple deities from Haridwar to protest against pollution in Ganga, and an American journalist who interviewed me about why I was there, and a doctor from Calcutta who was staying for the month, and fairground operators from Rishikesh who had just erected a huge plaster-of-Paris Shiva temple with its own real priest right next to the Wall of Death (ten rupees a tour, but they showed me round for free).
And one of the people standing here was that American journalist. What, I wonder, are the odds on that? And what, further, are the odds on three journalists or ex-journalists – me, the American, and Dhritiman Ray of Calcutta's Good News Tab – all meeting up at the same time at Pen Hospital?
I found two old Indian ebonites at 250 rupees each (I did manage to negotiate a trifling discount). It was an interesting way to shop, because every so often one of the journalists would fire off a question - What were the most popular pens? What were the commonest repairs? - and meanwhile, one of the repairers was telling the story of a guy who had dropped his Montblanc, and left the nib and section for mending but took the rest of the pen away with him – and there was a girl of about twenty who had a long shopping list (mainly ball pens, Chinese, modern) and wanted a discount, and kept on haggling long after it was obvious that a bigger discount was a lost cause; in between all this, I managed to buy the pens, and they were boxed up safely for me.
At some point, the American journalist confessed that he didn't have a fountain pen, so I took one of the Artexes I'd bought earlier out of my bag, and sold it to him. I could have made a nice profit, but I settled for the 20 rupees I'd paid for it.
"That's not a bad pen," said one of the repairers. "But it could be better."
He reached under the counter and brought out a little box of nibs.
"One of those, ten rupees. That will write really nicely."
I hope, between us, we managed to make a convert to the cause of the fountain pen.
That left me with one Artex – a pen that looks intriguingly like a Pelikan, till you consider the lack of any innards. (You guessed it, it's an eyedropper.) So back to Shakespeare Sarani, where I bought three more, having discovered more colours. I also discovered one of Calcutta's best bargains at the stationers' shops here; huge ledgers bound in leather and marbled paper, just a couple of hundred rupees each. In other cities I've often seen account books bound in orange or green cloth, stitched to the card covers with huge spirals of machine sewing; but here, I felt I'd stepped back into eighteenth-century England, or into the days when the Honourable Company still ran Calcutta (and indeed, most of India).
A couple of days later I had an appointment to visit Dhritiman Ray and his colleagues. Good News Tab is an interesting fortnightly paper; the copies I saw had a fascinating photo-essay on Calcutta's last hand projectionist, portraits of people working in unusual jobs (a pavement typist, a well-digger, a watchmender, and an ear cleaner; an episode of a trades unionist graphic novel, and stories about doctors working in socially responsible projects. The paper is based on delivering good news rather than bad – which sounds like a Pollyanna-ish recipe for tedium, but these fervent journalists make it work. The whole newsroom was amused that I'd met their colleague at the Pen Hospital, and he showed me the ancient Wing Sung he'd had at school, newly exhumed from the drawer where it had been lying unused for a few years. Dhritiman promised me solemnly that it was going to be re-inked and used once more, and I hope he kept his promise.