The pleasure of glistening words amidst broken nibs and ink-laden fingertips… Nuggets on ink history, intriguing colours, and stories on how four precious drops were borrowed back at school

The scratch of nib on paper, first word drying, fifth word glistening… a full stop, the cap back on, and the happy heft of the pen in the hand. Such fountain pen reminiscences were aplenty at a recent dinner; almost everybody (over the age of 35) spoke fondly of their schooldays, when they had neat handwriting and blue fingertips. “We used to borrow four drops of ink from a friend, if our pens went dry at school; and the next day, we would conscientiously return the four drops!” laughed a grandmother.

And yet, many confessed they had swapped inkpots and fillers for the convenience of refills and ballpoints. “Who even buys ink now?” one elderly woman asked. Had she stepped into Makoba with me, she would’ve been surprised. I certainly was, by the distinctively shaped inkbottles — an hourglass shaped one from Visconti, an octagonal bottle from Davidoff, and, from Mont Blanc, ink in an inkwell-shaped glass. “Pen connoisseurs come here for imported inks. They like to experiment with brands and colours, including unusual ones such as gold,” says Nitesh Jain, director, Makoba.

Colour palette

“A few inks are water-proof, and are bought especially for signing contracts. Some clients carry three identical fountain pens, with three different inks, in their pocket,” he says, showing me Caran d’Ache’s inks named Storm (purple), Carbon (black) and Sunset (red). Who buys that, I ask him, pointing to an attractive plum-pink. “Women,” he smiles.

Both women and men, once upon a time, relied on viscous, black Indian ink, says Pratap Kumar, director, Gem and Co. “They used it to write with quills,” he says. The 30- or 60-ml inkbottles are a relatively recent phenomenon. “Parker Quink was very popular a few decades ago,” he says, adding that Sheaffer, Waterman and Pelikan inks too were imported into India.

“Earlier, we handed out glass-and-rubber fillers whenever someone bought a pen from us. Now that filler is made of single-mould plastic,” he explains. “Blue-black was all the rage then; it was used for accounts; it wrote blue but turned black. There are no takers for that now. But gazetted officers / officials still walk in for green ink, and teachers buy red for paper correction.” Blue ink, by and large, is the most widely used, says Pratap. “Black dries faster; you need to maintain the pen, if not, the ink-channel gets clogged.”

Students have switched over to gel pens, says Ashok, proprietor, Chitra Agencies, Mylapore. “But older people, who are used to writing with fountain pens, are usually not happy with ball-pens,” he says, adding that when he’s asked to recommend a good, bright ink, he suggests Bril. “Bril and Parker continue to sell well here, but people who own expensive pens opt for imported inks.”

That, of course, comes at a price. Premium ink starts at Rs. 350, while inks imported from Japan / the U.S. / Germany are dearer (Pilot ink, from Japan, for instance, retails at Rs. 2,950). The writing experience, however, is unparalleled, says Nitesh, adding that fountain pens, as a rule, make your handwriting better. Probably the one exception to that rule, I shield my handwritten notes with my left hand. “You’re writing fast,” Nitesh smiles, excusing my scribbles. “Try this,” he says, and gives me a pen with a handcrafted gold nib, dipped in brown ink; suddenly, my scrawl looks interesting. And that’s where colourful ink scores, Nitesh says; it looks so good, it makes you want to write more.

And in the past, when much of the writing was done with ink pens, there were many occasions when one ran out of ink. “Shops near schools retailed ink,” recalls Pratap. “You could get your pen filled for 10 paise. They also had something called ink maathirai — it was a small tablet that you put into the pen and added water to, to make it ink,” he says. “We might now think it’s cheap, to borrow a few drops of ink from someone. But those simpler days were nice; who will bother returning four drops of ink now?” laughs Pratap.