W hy do we write? It is back-to-school time. Harassed parents all over the country are scouring the shops for school supplies. As I watch my kids fill their backpacks with pencils,pens, rulers and erasers, I wonder if the things they pack are already redundant. In this computer age, when keyboards click out everything from memos to spreadsheets to emails to articles, why bother with the physical act of writing?
Most adults nowadays, I would wager, write hardly at all and if they do, it is probably scribbled phone numbers, grocery lists and signatures. Even that is in danger of becoming extinct, given that people have started scribbling into their phone and hand-held computers.
I am no exception. Much of my work is done on a laptop. It is faster, more efficient and definitely more forgiving. I make a typo; one click later, it is erased. I use less paper now that I work on the computer. No trees are cut down for the multiple drafts that I write for each piece because I rarely print my work. I finish it and email it out.
And yet I carry around four fountain pens and a beautiful handmade notebook in my purse. Not functional ballpoint pens, mind you, but beautiful liquid fountain pens. I carry them because a notebook is infinitely more portable than any laptop to record thoughts. You can doodle into a notebook, draw pictures on the side, scratch out a word, a list or a paragraph and rewrite it. Sometimes, the words you scratched out are more valuable than the new ones. In a computer, once I hit ‘backspace’ and erase, my previous thoughts and sentences are lost forever (I know that there is a method to save every draft but, usually, I don’t do this). For the most part, my computerized text lacks history. Not so in my notebook. All my thoughts and additions are preserved just as they are, in edited, scratched-out, rewritten glory.
I specifically choose fountain pens for their flourish. Ballpoint pens are much more functional and more available, but they lack history. Fountain pens are carried by people who value the gesture of writing as much as they value the end-result. When I open my fountain pen and watch the ink flow out and become words, it connects me all the way back to the Romans and Chinese who invented pen and ink (okay, that sounds pretentious, but isn’t meant to be). The Chinese created ink from pine soot and lamp oil, somewhat like how we make kajal for the eyes. The Romans used bamboo reeds for writing. They filled the reeds with ink and carved one end into a thin nib. The earliest fountain pens were essentially quills held together with a nib and a reservoir of ink. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a Romanian mathematician, Petrarche Poenaru, invented the fountain pen while studying in Paris. The French government promptly patented his invention. Brits and Americans took the fountain pen to the next level by coming up with improvements.
Lewis Waterman, for instance, was an insurance salesman who lost a contract because his fountain pen leaked. Frustrated, he invented and patented the capillary-feed that provides even ink flow. Fountain pens are the product of finicky gentlemen such as Parker, Scheaffer and Mont Blanc, each of whom had definite views on the writing instrument. Chinese scholars, on the other hand, have definite views on the gesture of writing. Novice calligraphers spend hours on each brushstroke, varying the pressure and ending each stroke with a slight, almost imperceptible, curve upwards.
I love my fountain pens. One of them is a Parker embossed with my name. But the remaining three are pens I picked up in stationery stores. The Rs45 one leaks every time I open it, just as it used to when I was in school. I end up with ink-stained hands, which drives my friends nuts. Why won’t you use a ballpoint pen for crying out loud, they cry out loud. What they don’t see is how my ink-stained hands bring back wonderful childhood memories. I can wash the stains, but they are so busy with their perfect little ballpoints that they can’t summon up happy memories through Rorschach-test stains on one thumb.
My favourite is the Rs100 fountain pen because it has a transparent body. I can tell how much ink it contains by simply looking at it. As any fountain pen aficionado will tell you, there is nothing worse than having your ink run out midway through a sentence, scrawl or signature. Imagine: You brandish your pen, begin to write and, halfway through, it dries up. You are left scratching the surface quite literally, waiting for letters to come out. Even worse, when you shake the darn pen to coax ink out of it, it splatters blue ink all over your hostess’ antique carpet.
It is during moments like these that I almost capitulate and buy a ballpoint. Almost.
If ballpoints are functional, then Shoba lacks form. Write to her at email@example.com