We were on vacation in Ootacamund that summer. Ooty. We were staying at Lawrence School, Lovedale, where Do aur Do Paanch was recently shot. My father was attending a summer training there and we accompanied him to enjoy the magnificent views of the hill station. But above all that, my excitement lay in a promise that my mother had made. I had stood first in class and she had promised to buy me my first fountain pen that summer. Before that year, it was always pencils. Pens were permanently out-of bounds, and this forbidden territory was always enticing.
Finally towards the end of the vacation, she kept her promise. She bought me my first pen, but I had no choice in what she bought. Like her choices of sarees, this too wasn’t a plain pen. It had weird brown streaks on its surface. Her logic was that the unusual pattern would ensure that it wouldn’t get mixed up with the pens of any of my classmates. With the present came the expected set of admonitions- telling me that if I were to lose this pen, I would not get another one for the rest of the year. So I handled it with extreme care.
Despite all that, disaster struck. I had left my pen on the dining table for a moment. And one idiot of a brother dripped some oil from a bottle of mango pickle on it. So soaked in that fiery masala which accompanied the achari mustard oil, my now yellow pen acquired strange tiger-like stripes. I dared not ask my mother for another one, as it ‘was still working fine’ despite how it looked. And I continued using it for a long time.
My mother had some strange habits. She would buy the fanciest coloured pens and sketch pens, which the three of us would invariably require for our project work. But she would never trust us with them, since she said we would lose them. They were always under lock and key in her almirah. And when we needed them in the vacations, she would decide to take them out of her hiding place. And lo and behold- all those pens would never work as the ink in them would have dried! We never stopped pulling her leg about this habit. In fact when she passed away, and we were in the process of opening lockers and almirahs to check for her treasures, my brother wryly remarked: The only gold you will find here will be dried up colour sketch pens! That was so like her!
Good handwriting was always cause for praise. And everyone had a theory of what worked best. My own experience was best with thick pens- they brought out the best in my calligraphy. Another vacation, I was in Bihar, where I found that my Uncle who stayed in the UK had left me a gift- a Parker pen! My grandfather said something to the effect that being the most studious kid of the next generation I deserved it. And there was some talk about a diamond-tipped nib. I was excited but the thought of damaging the ‘diamond-tip’ petrified me. I never opened the box keeping it for a special day. Days passed into years and I forgot all about the pen. When I finally got into MBBS, I found the pen somewhere in my drawer, and decided that it had to be used. Alas, the pen no longer worked then! Guess, my mother’s traits of putting pens to hibernation passed on to me!
The next big ‘pen moment’ came in Std 10 at Agrawal Sir’s mathematics tuition classes. The first day he started with telling us how to write the numericals clearly- why a zero must not look like a 6, or why you needed to slash 7 down its middle so that it wasn’t mistaken for 1. All good practical tips which have lasted me in good stead till today. Then suddenly he launched into Dronacharya mode. We are going into war- he announced. And every warrior performs as best as the quality of his weapons, he said, looking right into my eyes. He walked up to me. I froze. He picked up my pen and demonstrated it to the rest of the class. I cringed with embarrassment. The scratchy nib had frayed and yes, it looked terrible. It left streaks on the paper. Silently I felt furious at my mother who would have said- “Why do you need a new pen? This one is still working!”. I didn’t need this public humiliation. But there was more to come. He opened his cupboard, brought out a box of gleaming Hero pens, and gave me one. My first Hero pen!
I never forgot that lesson. My love for stationery grew and I still can’t resist looking at any shop window which has great writing stuff. Maybe one day I will be able to afford a Cross or a Mont Blanc. Now they are merely treasures to rave about but never possess. My father shared this love for stationery, and every birthday I got a pen. It didn’t matter what else I got, that pen was always special- because I knew he would take the effort to choose the choicest and the best for me. I miss that birthday present the most as he is no longer around.
The keyboard may have replaced the pen, but nothing matches the beauty of a hand-written letter in ink. Maybe one day Amitabh Bachchan will send me one in his beautiful handwriting. That is one elusive dream.