Sanjeev Narula, R P Traders and the elusive “Kalkatta” Fountain Pens!
The local trains, that ferry daily passengers to and from their workplaces in Kolkata have always fascinated me, among many things for the vendors – who carry trinkets of every conceivable variety, ware, that they peddle with some of the most ingenious ways, grabbing attention and almost throttling one for the eyeballs. And attention I pay, for I often make these journeys, just for the experience of seeing these remarkable salesmen (and an odd woman), to witness them perfecting the art of the sales pitch. These are Philip Kotler, David Ogilvy and Peter Drucker ‘s teachings combined, in action.
One of the things that is sold in these trains are pens – mostly ball point pens that the commuters buy in haste, but ask, and the vendor will display his box of jewels, functional fountain pens in bright colours that at times border on the garish, priced unbelievably low. No, we are not talking about Chinese knock-off’s but pens, proudly made in India, in Kolkata no less. Befriend the vendor by buying a few, enquire about the source of the pens and chances are, that the name R P Traders will crop up. The same way the name crops up around the country when stationers show you their collection of Kalkatta fountain pens!
Now if you are a fountain pen fanatic, you will naturally want to follow the leads and wind your way to this glacier, whose melted waters have perched and continue perch the thirst of countless pen-pushers downstream. I did, and thank heavens for that. For after following many trails that led to impregnable rock walls, I did reach it and met Sanjeev Narula, the man running the show at RP Traders these days. And what an experience it was – not only for the pens that he has on display, but also for the nuggets that I gleaned from him about the industry around Kolkata, its history and legacy.
The year was 1968. Ram Prakash Narula, in search of fame and fortune, came to Calcutta all the way from Amritsar in Punjab. He soon set up base in the Chitpur area of central Calcutta and started trading in fountain pens. Not the type that the rich and the mighty carried in their pockets those days, but the entry level, mostly plastic and metal pens that were the staple of the locals – students and scribes alike. Soon, by sheer hard work, he established his business – painfully building up a chain of vendors from around India, sourcing the raw material that he would get converted into pens of all possible shapes and sizes from a number of entities who would do the fabrication for him.
R P Traders by the mid-seventies was well established, with resellers sourcing writing instruments from it for sale not only across India, but also in the neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Locally too, it had emerged as the go-to destination for stationery suppliers and bulk orders from some of the biggest stationery brands in India were a regular, keeping the wheels in perpetual motion.
By the time Sanjeev Narula joined his father’s business in the nineties, however, the storm clouds had started gathering – the cheap use-and-throw dot pens had begun chipping away large chunks of the market, Chinese imports had begun making surreptitious inroads, while the biggest blow – the gradual drying up of ink manufacturers, led to a situation where the death knell was sounded to the once ubiquitous fountain pen. However, RP traders survived, steadfastly refusing to give it all up, to keep up with the times. Yes, things were far from the heady days of the eighties, but, still.
I visited Sanjeev Narula only a couple of days back, well after the pandemic induced forced lockdown had brought all businesses to their knees. But the ever-affable Sanjeev Narula, gritty and stoic, was not complaining. “It is a myth that the fountain pen is dead” he told me with a smile, “there are die-hard fountain pen users who have never written with any other instruments and then there are the youngsters who are reacquainting themselves with the pleasure of seeing their words form as the ink dries on the paper”.
He should know. Even now, long after the Cassandras have proclaimed the demise of the fountain pen, R P Traders has tie-ups with as many as sixteen different manufacturing units spread around Kolkata and its suburbs which regularly supply it with fountain pens. That is direct and indirect employment to five hundred odd people. And hold your breath, the fountain pens made here – mostly with moulded plastic bodies come fitted with all kinds of nibs – from Kanwrite to Jowo and from Tibet (tipped in plain English) to those manufactured in Sattur (the village in Tamil Nadu where fountain pen nibs are still manufactured as a cottage industry). As for the filling systems too, these pens are capable of adapting to the three-in-one model, their quality extremely robust for the prices at which they are offered. Spread across the different manufacturers, are more than a hundred moulds, some the only surviving pieces of once popular models, that await Sanjeev Narula’s instruction for deployment. And yes, most of the top brands still source their pens from R P Traders.
Surprisingly, R P Traders never took the logical step to establish its own brand. “We were happy acting as OEM to the big brands” said Sanjeev Narula. “My father had once invested in a factory to manufacture ebonite rods, but somehow we never got into branding”.
Coming back to the present, “the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise” says Sanjeev Narula, “it has given me enough time not only to put my house in order, but also to retrospect, to plan for the future. Many new models are in various stages of development. Calligraphy pen sets of different types are also ready and yes, we are now preparing for a presence in Amazon to address the ever-increasing demand from young users”.
I bow my head before you. Ojigi.