Pen Hospital, Kolkata where the fountains still sprout pens
Kolkata’s most celebrated adoption service is not one that felicitates the process, whereby one assumes the parenting of a child from the child’s biological or legal parent(s). It is now almost eight decades old, is located bang in the middle of the city’s busiest business district, Esplanade, and is frequented by a rare breed of connoisseurs whose passion, shall we say, tests the limits of conventional logic.
You cannot see the establishment from the main thoroughfare, hidden as it is in a cavity that is overrun with an angry undergrowth of export surplus t-shirts, faux leather purses, duplicate electronic implements and everything else that hunters from the hinterlands are wont to buy from the sidewalks. Be prepared for a jolt when you reach the destination, for it is just a few decrepit glass cupboards aired by a ceiling fan, the type of which must have gone out of service before you were even born. The rest of the period pieces that that are stuffed in every possible orifice too, are so unkempt in their dilapidation that they make the decay of the city look refreshing by comparison.
In what passes off as the main counter sits brothers Mohammad Imtiaz and Mohmmad Riaz – stoic, with weather-beaten faces that are mostly devoid of expression, breaking into a warm smile only for a select few. They go about their business with clinical precision, as stingy and acerbic with their words as the decor of their shop. And for all practical purposes, at least to the uninitiated, comes across as ones who are doing you a favour by tolerating your presence.
Yet High Court Judges and Surgeons who sport seven day wait-lists for an appointment, journalists, writers and bureaucrats, regularly make the pilgrimage to the excuse of the shop, to meet the men, to celebrate their acquaintance. And if you still haven’t got what I am talking about, then know this. The establishment I am talking about is the Pen Hospital, Kolkata’s oldest, and certainly the most revered adoption service – as in one, that finds caring homes for pre-loved fountain pens! (For the unversed, the establishment was started by Samsuddin, nurtured by his son Mohmmad Sultan and is now run by the third-generation in the business).
Mohmmad Riaz opens the Pen Hospital well after noon, does not entertain customers looking for a bargain and often leaves his counter unmanned to while away his time, chatting up his friend in the next shop, to reluctantly trudge back only when a known patron walks in. Yet, he has never charged me for any pen that I have taken to him for repairs, to the extent of replacing faulty ones for free. Some call him snide. Some think that he deliberately prices himself out of the reach of the ordinary. Some think that he is a terrible business man. All I know is that once, when I did not have the money to buy a Sheaffer pen that I particularly fancied, he had just given it to me, as a gift! Just like that – I remember him putting the cap on the pen with all the affection one can muster and hooking the clip into my shirt pocket.
A Conway Stewart Churchill, a Parker Duofold in all its restrained magnificence, a Montblanc 149, a stunning piece of Japanese art in Urushi lacquer … the delectable spread that he brings out on any given day is a treat to the eye of the beholder. Fact is, perhaps, even more than his pens, he knows his connoisseurs. Lesser mortals are dispatched off with Chinese trinkets and other toys that grown up men, who suffer from the delusion of being collectors, are known to play with. That explains the reputation of indifference, of uninterested nonchalance. But to be fair to the man, he is not an insurance salesman and the sooner one realises, that in order to break into the sanctum sanctorum serious penance is required, the better. Besides, it is also a fact that gone are the days of plenty and quality vintage and antique pens, even of the pre-owned variety are extremely hard to come by these days.
The eighties and the nineties were different. Kolkata’s rich and the famous were then selling their ancestral properties to either migrate, or to move into 3BHK flats. And old, forgotten drawers were yielding stashes that had once made their foppish owners proud. Most of these pieces have already found their ways into the collections of the aficionados. Now, when their collections are bequeathed, the net savvy philistines put them up for sale in hard currency, as opposed to adoption, dollars dominating over delight. The city’s nouveau riche do not carry a pen in their shirt pockets, nor are they remotely interested in knowing the pleasures (or pains) of carrying one, and that the Pen Hospital is steadily sinking into penury is not something that bothers them – forgive them, for they know not, what they know not!
Not that Md. Riaz of the Pen Hospital is perturbed – when one deals with the gems of the past, the squalor of the present somehow fades into oblivion. But the future – now that is another story. His son has started accompanying him to the shop, and is just about getting to know the old faithful as they talk about fountain pens with the same reverence normal mortals reserve for their deities, if not describing them as the lovelorn talk of their beloved.
“Do you regret seeing decay gnawing at the edges? Will you change anything given a chance” I had asked Riazbhai once.
“Not a thing, he had said. “Not many people have spent their lives dealing with the most respected of the city’s gentlemen. In my many years at the shop, I have never had a customer short change me. I have never had anyone break the trust and faith imposed on them. A fountain pen collector is a quintessential Bhadrolok, a typical Bengali Babu. It has been my good fortune that I have had the pleasure of their company and I pray to God that my son may continue with the blessings that were showered on me”.
There is only one thing to say after that.