Made in Madras Society

Penning a story

"Every pen came with a story." Photo: R. Ragu  

What’s in a pen, I ask a friend that morning. He was cross that his Sheaffer jingled like loose change in my handbag. I ought to respect a pen as grand as that, he said. But I just didn’t get it — a pen is a pen. Be it a five-rupee ballpoint pen or a gold-plated one that comes in a felt box, it serves the same purpose, doesn’t it? Ironically, I spent the whole of the afternoon ensconced inside one of the city’s oldest pen shops, whose proprietor believed every pen came with a story.

At Gem & Co., it’s blasphemous to mention ball-point pen and fountain pen in the same breath. M. Pratap Kumar runs the shop that was established in the late 1920s, in George Town. Gem is known for its brand of handcrafted Gama pens, that many cherish as a thing of great value. So, what’s so special about a Gama pen?

“The brand is named after a world wrestling champion,” says Pratap. A brainchild of Pratap’s grandfather, M.C. Cunnan, and his business partner S. Venkat Rangam Chetty, Gama was originally designed in Madras and made in England. Made of ebonite and crafted as per customers’ requirement, the more expensive Gama varieties can cost Rs. 2,000 and above.

Perhaps the only pen shop in the city that has a service centre for antique pens, Gem functions at a pace of its own, unconcerned about competition and the demands of the business world. True, fountain pens do not have that many takers as they did in the past, but Pratap says that business has picked up during the last three years. This is because there is a growing number of people who appreciate a good fountain pen and are concerned about the nuances of writing with one.

“The speed at which thoughts flow matches with that of the flow of ink when one writes with a fountain pen,” says Pratap. “So mistakes are fewer when compared to a ballpoint pen, using which one can write at a faster pace.” He feels that when a fountain pen is employed, the writing is beautiful and balanced, and there’s less pressure on the fingers. “It’s eco-friendly too. When was the last time you saw a discarded fountain pen?” he asks. “A good fountain pen will last you at least two years. I’d say even 20 years, if you maintain it well.”

Some fountain pens outlive their users. Pratap says that he has people walking into his shop to get Gama pens, used by their grandfathers, serviced. “I hear beautiful stories,” he smiles. There was a time when people in the city thronged Gem & Co. to buy themselves a Gama. “We got over 100 pens for servicing every day,” recalls Pratap. “I had over 16 staff members. But today, numbers have greatly reduced. Our workforce is five now, including me.”

But Pratap continues to stick to the business — mainly for the love of it and also for the comfort in the familiarity that the glass-topped shelves and wooden cupboards offer him. He, after all, grew up amidst them. Cunnan and Venkat Rangam’s (the founders) sons took over the business, which was then taken over by their sons. Pratap doubts if his daughter will follow suit. But something tells me that Gem & Co. will march on, long after the ink dries in its oldest Gama pen.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 4:22:27 PM |

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