Did Sulekha ever make pens? No, we are not talking about molded pens, but ebonite pens of a certain vintage, that can transport us back to those glory days of the freedom struggle, of Swaraj? At the least, to a time when Sulekha was the premier ink maker in the Nation, boldly unfurling the tri-color on distant shores? The question keeps cropping up, and though I did know the answer, I could not muster the conviction to reply as I had never seen such a pen, leave alone use one, or have one in my collection.
Things changed a couple of months ago when Kaushik Maitra called me up one day. His voice trembling with excitement, he informed that while cleaning a storage space in the factory premises, some old fountain pens have been recovered. I was in the factory, I believe, even before he could hang up! And what I saw did take my breath away.
In a carboard box were about a hundred ebonite pens, all of a light brown colour with black ripples. The caps were intact, as were the gripping sections, though conspicuously absent were the nibs. Surprisingly, most of the caps had not one, but two breathing holes. In the same box was a paper packet that contained the clips, finials, feeds and the rings, which, though they showed hints of having been ravaged by time, were surprisingly smart to look at. In fact, the arrow clips were as pristine as they were made just the other day. The feeds too were in very good condition.
The decision to have the pens restored and christen them “Sulekha Swaraj” was an easy one. Having them examined by the experts too wasn’t a task that took a lot of effort. What bowled us however, was the decision about which nib to fit the pens with. Imported nibs were a strict no-no, as anyone with even an inkling about what Sulekha has always stood for will agree. Fitting the pens with contemporary nibs, manufactured in India – be they made by established companies, or sourced from Sattur in Tamil Nadu – the village where nib making is still practiced by a few households, was also ruled out after lengthy discussions with the experts. The primary reason behind this was that the experts felt that the pens should be fitted with nibs that are as ancient as the pens themselves, least they stand out as sore thumbs.
But finding such nibs, that too in bulk, is easier said than done. No dealer had such nibs and in desperation, we started contacting people who used to supply Sulekha with pens and nibs. Even that was a Herculean task, as we were looking for suppliers who were in business at least five decades ago. As you can well appreciate, most such entities are today out of business, many of the owners themselves having passed away.
Finally, we were able to track down one pen turner, who also had the kind of nibs that we were looking for – of similar vintage and quality that would match the nibs. And guess what? These are the type of nibs that were, at that point in time, also fitted in the Artex pens. I am mentioning this fact, not merely because of the happy coincidence, but also because of the fact that I feel, some of us old-timers would surely look forward to reliving the nostalgic feeling of writing with Sulekha as well as Artex.
It will not be out of place to mention here that in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s when we were in school, our magic wand used to be Sulekha and often Artex. The Artex pens were known to rule the roost before the deluge of cheap Chinese pens had inundated the local industry, just before they too were vanquished by the ball point pens. It looks like it is so far back in time when we think rationally, but in the heart of our hearts it seems like yesterday and both Sulekha and Artex, evoke memories that are hard to forget.
The experts too were unanimous and they too insisted that the number 6 nib that has been fitted in the Sulekha Swaraj is not only what was originally intended to be fitted, but that the nib itself is like a match made in heaven.
Now for another coincidence that seems too good to be true. After the pens were buffed, nib and feed fitted, tested and the “Sulekha Swaraj” imprint laser engraved on the barrel, the ready pieces were counted. And guess what? The number of pens that are ready to hit the shelves is only 75. Imagine that – a Swadeshi product to celebrate the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav!
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