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Indian Pen Odyssey 9: Calcutta, Coincidences And Converts

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#1 amk

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Posted 29 July 2013 - 09:04

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.

 

penKOL001.jpg

 

 

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.

 

pen009.jpg

 

 

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).

 

penKOL003.jpg

 

 

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.

 


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#2 de_pen_dent

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Posted 29 July 2013 - 09:35

I did the same pilgrimage as you last week.  I got a couple of 45s in College Street for Rs 500 a pop, a nice Vacumatic, a P51 and P61 from Pen Hospital and some old Maximas/Triumphs from this small shop near the GPO (one of the College Street guys told me about it, and i spent over an hour walking around trying to find it - got lucky just as i was about to give up and head off).

 

The Pen Hospital guy usually has a decent collection of vintage pens, but not so much in the way of Indian pens.

 

If you are going to Chennai, you'll have good luck there - search for Hari's posts on where to get pens in Chennai.


True bliss: knowing that the guy next to you is suffering more than you are.

#3 pankaj

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Posted 29 July 2013 - 11:27

An interesting travelogue. Really enjoyable. But not as much for pens as for the kind of reconnaissance undertaken. It recollects the "Journey to the Center of the Earth " :)

I am wondering indeed about the spirit and enthusiasm of AMK, and DH Lawrence type passion for pens. hats off!

 

Next time, AMK and de_pen_dent : should you again venture for fountain pens thru the blind alleys of India ( a Shanti Town .. someone out here has honorably rechristened !!) , you may visit :

 

Nehru Place in Delhi ( near Paras cinema )

 

a standing peddler in CP in Delhi in E Block / Giggles in E Block again CP 

 

New Market in Kolkata

 

a garage sale type / antique seller near Fiona restaurant on the road from Little Russel Street to Park Street ( hitting  the 5 star Park hotel ) 

 

insignificant pen shops in Hira Panna, Pedder Road,  Mumbai ( of course I haven't visited for a while ).

 

May be you may hit some cheapie stuff.

 

Best,

Pankaj

 

 



#4 amk

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Posted 29 July 2013 - 13:08

Oooh De-pen-dent, you are a lucky so and so. I got nothing at all in College Street!


Too many pens, too little time!

http://fountainpenlove.blogspot.fr/


#5 de_pen_dent

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Posted 29 July 2013 - 17:59

Pankaj - may I ask where in New Market?   I am usually have a stop-over in Kolkata for a day every few weeks, and this could be a new mission.    Thanks!  :)


True bliss: knowing that the guy next to you is suffering more than you are.

#6 pankaj

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Posted 30 July 2013 - 05:10

Pankaj - may I ask where in New Market?   I am usually have a stop-over in Kolkata for a day every few weeks, and this could be a new mission.    Thanks!   :)

Oh so sorry, difficult for me to navigate. haven't visited for quite some time. I situate in Bombay. Looks like you are rather recent dated about Cal. Well, there was another guy too in the Old Post Office street ( smallish nuts & bolts seller type shop ), who used to have an impressive range of seconds and vintage, many within a sophomore budget . My bad! just can't zero in off hand. In person, I'm sure I can trace out. Lemme  collect details and revert. :)     



#7 da vinci

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Posted 30 July 2013 - 05:43

I have really enjoyed reading about your travels and pen related experiences - please keep the topics coming  :D  :thumbup:



#8 mohan

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Posted 30 July 2013 - 17:13

Really enjoying Indian pen odyssies- thanks






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