I am quite excited to be writing about a part of my early childhood (mid 50s), which is associated with the nostalgia of writing instruments, or ‘pens’. I am also happy that in my life as a young student, I got to use ‘pens’ of various kinds, from downright primitive to current. I guess today’s generation will be missing out what we had to use 50 years ago. Most basic pen that I used was made of ‘straw’ that grew wildly on the roadsides and was found in abundance in villages and small towns. Thankfully it was also, no one’s property. We just had to pull out dried plant of straw, cut it to a suitable size with a kitchen knife or a discarded shaving blade and make a pen. Length and thickness of the pen should fit my (student’s) hand comfortably. One end of straw would be sliced off diagonally, making the side narrow and expose the hollow of the straw. This was sliced further from both sides until the point reached the required thickness of alphabets. For me in the 1st standard the point must have been about 0.3cm to 0.4cm wide. In the beginning of my school, I learnt to write the alphabets and digits on what we called as ‘Takhti’. Takhti was a single piece of flat rectangular wood, measuring about 1.5ft X 1.0 ft and weighing about a Kilo. Its surface would be either black or white. On one side a handle was carved out to hold and carry the Takhti comfortably. Takhti could be used only once at a time. If it was to be used again, one had to go through a long and laborious process of repainting its surface. So every time I came back from school I had to wash the Takhti clean, re-paint it with black or white liquid and leave it to dry for next day at school. It had to be done every day. Initially my mother did it for me, but when I grew a little older she asked me to learn to do it myself.
White ink was made by dissolving chalk (white Khadiya) in water and for black ink I used a charcoal based stuff. Both looked like small pebbles. Sometimes we also drew lines on the Takhti, to be able to write in a straight line. My alphabets would be about 2 inches tall. With that thickness of my straw pen, I could barely write about 5 alphabets in one row. Takhti had 4-5 rows. Sometimes one side of the Takhti was used for writing alphabets and the other for numbers.
Then came the up-grade in writing technology and I got to write with a ‘nib and holder’. Holder of the nib was again a comfortable sized piece of wood, at the end of which was a slot to hold a writing nib. This piece of wood was factory made. The nibs also came in two kinds, one for Hindi and the other one called ‘G-nib’, for writing in English. The nibs had a fine cut in the middle that held a little ink and was right for writing English alphabets. Hindi did not need the slit in the nib. For writing, the nibs had to be dipped in the ‘ink-pot’ frequently, as they had no arrangement for storing ink in them. You could write only 2 to 4 alphabets after dipping it once. So, the idea was to master the art of dipping it just right to avoid a drop falling on the paper and nib not drying off soon enough. Even this ink was made at home. I remember I used to buy blue or red color, dry ink by the weight. It looked like crystals, the size of sugar. I would put some crystals in the old ink bottle, add some water and then stir it until it dissolved. The darkness of the ink could be increased by adding more solid stuff and vice versa.
After a while fountain-pens appeared and I found them so very convenient. I could fill the ink in it and that eliminated the problem of dipping it frequently in the ink pot. Initial fountain pens seemed ahead of time then, but in reality they were very crude. First fountain pen I remember was the type in which its nib assembly had to be separated by unscrewing it from its ink storage to pour the ink in it and tighten the nib assembly back on. Though it could take hardly 2cc of ink, but you could do a whole day’s work with it.
Initially we filled the fountain pens, directly from the inkpot. But soon I learn that it was a good idea to always fill the ink, away from my lap or any other item. Later to avoid messing our clothes we got medical droppers to fill the ink more efficiently. Many times after filling, the ink did not flow down onto the paper while writing. To solve this problem, the famous action of giving a few jerks to the pen was used. With this action drops of the ink would escape out of the nib and that meant that, pen will surely work now. Again, here too utmost care was advised to be very careful while jerking the pen, in case the drops of ink fell on the table cloth or on your teacher’s white Pajamas.
Later on the ink filling technology improved when small inflatable rubber tubes were introduced for filling and storing ink. They were attached to the nib assembly. This mechanism worked by squeezing the tube to create vacuum inside, dipping the nib into the ink pot and then releasing the pressure to get the tube inflated back again; there by sucking the ink inside it. I felt this was a brilliant idea.
Then for a short while there appeared a piston type arrangement for filling ink. You push the piston down to create a vacuum, dip it in the ink and pull it out. Just like our Pichkari, used during festival of Holi. Most of these pens were not really fool-proof (read leak-proof). So many educated people shyly wore a patch of blue ink around their shirt pockets, as everyone would sport his pen in the shirt pocket. To some extent this could be tackled by putting Vaseline on the threads of the pen. There used to be some pen thieves too. They would borrow your pen in a post office and then walk off with it. To tackle this smartness you did a touché by not parting with the cap of your pen. So, if a thief pocketed your pen without its cap; he would certainly be caught red handed, by being blue pocketed.
For hand-writing the last instrument to arrive was the ball point pen. They were accepted very well are still reigning supreme. With these, the trouble of keeping ink bottles and filling ink was completely taken care off. But economic conservatives initially said it did not make sense to buy new refills every time. Indian banks too took time to accept forms or cheques filled in with ball point pens. You know how resistant governments and its employees are to think beyond what they have been doing. They did not care if the figures or signatures on cheques got washed off with a drop of rain water. They stuck to their point, ‘ball pens are not allowed!’
It does not seem to me if there are any advanced technologies in hand-writing instruments are waiting in the wings. In the present age of flying emails, I feel using those straw pens was literally like being associated with the stone-age, rather ‘straw-age’ of hand writing.