Dilip Basak from Kolkata carefully removes the nib from a mixture of detergent, water and a guarded ingredient after soaking it for more than eight hours. As soon as he fixes the nib back onto the fountain pen and dips it in a blue inkpot, his words begin to flow on the paper.
“It is now as smooth as butter on a hot pan,” he sighs with relief in an interview with The Better India. He adds that the pen costs more than Rs 1 lakh. The fountain pen he had been working on for the last 15 days is the premium Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Solitaire Calligraphy Gold Leaf.
Located in Kolkata’s narrow lanes of Devendra Ghosh Street in Bhabanipur, Dilip’s rectangular shop, Electromech Vintage Fountain Pen Repair, is one of the remaining few in India that can breathe new life into fountain pens.
Fountain pens, one of the most treasured and revered belongings for the new generation, was once used universally to write important legal documents, school homework, poems, secrets and the list goes on.
It was Dilip’s father Bholanath Prasad, who had started this shop right before the 1975 Emergency was imposed after an adjacent shop owner rejected his employment request.
“My father had never studied in school and to support his four children, he would take up menial jobs. Fed up with all the rejections, he decided to start something of his own and that’s when he got the idea of fixing broken pens. Back then the use and demand for such pens was very high. He never fathomed that one day the pens that once helped him put food on the table would be replaced by plastic pens, and later the art of writing on paper would be made redundant with the dawn of computers and laptops,” says Dilip, who is now in his fifties.
Penchant For Pens
If Bholanath began his shop out of sheer desperation to feed his large family, Dilip joined for the love of pens.
The financial adversities soon caught up with Dilip’s education and he was asked to drop out of the school. For a couple of weeks, he shadowed his father and keenly observed every aspect of fixing a pen.
However, when his father was finally able to arrange for his school fees, Dilip turned down the prospect of studying and instead decided to immerse himself into the world of pen anatomy at the age of 13.
Leaving school for work that did not generate as much income as a college graduate would get was not an easy decision, especially given that Bholanath was working round the clock to provide a better future for his children.
“I distinctly remember my father’s words on the first day of my work post the school episode. He said he could only bring me to the tracks but taking the train forward would be entirely my responsibility. He said I had to be the best repair guy in the city if I wanted to earn a decent living. He also added how it is vital to treat every pen with respect for it could go on to write history, in many ways,” he adds.
The first pen that he ever fixed was a Parker that was priced around Rs 4 and he had charged only Re 1. Other pen brands that he has worked with include Pilot, Waterman and Swiss Military.
He says it was not very complicated to repair fountain pens till the ’90s.
“Since the manufacturing units of fountain pens were many, it was easy to get a hold of parts of the pen that went missing or were broken. Even in terms of customers our shop would always be crowded and filled with pens of the who’s who. I have fixed pens of Satyajit Ray, Jyoti Basu, judges of High Court and even some members of Raj Bhavan. Their pens were brought to me by their staff and on some occasions, they would themselves visit the shop. My fondest memory was sipping chai and discussing politics with former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee,” says Dilip.
Dilip shares the satisfaction of seeing the joy on customers and fountain-pen enthusiasts’ faces after their pen starts working properly.
In the last few years, he has seen an emerging trend towards preserving and collecting fountain pens. Every pen, he says, has a story to tell.
“Some customers inherit the pen from their ancestors so it holds a high sentimental value and their only hope is for the pen to run smoothly without blotches. Some purchase it via auction or online at hefty prices and some just want to relive the nostalgia of writing. So while handling pens, I am extremely careful while using my antediluvian lathe machine and deal with it as if my life depends on it,” says Dilip.
Madhumita Chowdhury, one of his customers, says, “My maternal grandfather had gifted his most cherished fountain pen to me on my birthday a few years ago but it stopped working. I learnt about Dilip’s work through Facebook. I handed him the pen with no hope but after a few days, it was fixed. He truly worked as a magician.”
Dilip does not know how many pens he has repaired in his career spanning four decades but on average he repairs four to five pieces every day.
Even though he is widely known in the circles of collectors, pen connoisseurs and old-school writers, his earnings are not as high as his classmates who have gone on to work at big companies. But he says it is enough to run his family and finance his daughter’s education who is currently doing her Chemistry Honours.
You can reach him here