Inked in India: History of fountain pen, and the policies that killed it

indian fountain pens
'Inked In India: Fountain Pens and a Story of Make and Unmake' by Bibek Debroy and Sovan Roy traces the rise and fall of India's fountain pen industry.

I like fountain pens. These days, there is often a perception that the usage of fountain pens is dying out. That is partly true; it is also partly true that the usage of all writing instruments is dying out. But there are still people who love fountain pens. They like the feel of writing with fountain pens. They like the kind of writing you get when you use fountain pens, and this is much beyond nostalgia.

I am particularly interested in Indian fountain pens. I collect fountain pens; I especially collect Indian fountain pens. I have been interested in history in general and, therefore, interested in the history of Indian fountain pens, nibs and fountain pen ink. I found all kinds of journalistic accounts on fountain pens in India. Typically, journalistic accounts such as so and so produced the fountain pen with which the Constitution was drafted. That kind of thing.

I found a lot of articles from the history of Indian fountain pens in the blog that John Ganguly writes. Many of you may have read it his long — Inked Happiness. I could not find a book which documents the history of Indian fountain pens, inks and nibs. It is also true that there has been a churn in the Indian fountain pen industry. When I say fountain pen, I can’t keep saying ink and nibs; I mean all of it together.

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We tend to think that Indian fountain pens are dying out because people buy the foreign brands. They buy German pens, British pens, American pens, Japanese Pens, and even Chinese pens. Where are the Indian pens? What some people do not realize is that these are interesting times for Indian fountain pen manufacturers. In the last 20 years or so, there have been several new entrants.

By profession, I am an economist and, therefore, inevitably I tend to look at things with the lens of economic policy. So, there was a double objective. Is it possible to write a documentary history of the making of fountain pens in India, and look at economic policies which have either encouraged or discouraged the development of that industry?

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As a collector of fountain pens, I got in touch with Sovan Roy who also is interested in fountain pens. He is a collector of fountain pens and he wrote a monograph. So, Sovan and I got in touch with each other and we decided to put together this book on the history of Indian fountain pens with the economic lens, which have been published by Rupa. It is titled Inked in India, and the subtitle says ‘a story of make and unmake’ which is what the book is about. It will be of interest to those who are interested in the history of economic policy making in India.

Let us start at the beginning, and the beginning, of course, is the manufacture of ink. Everyone who is watching this video probably knows, that there isn’t a clear dividing line which says, that this is when we started making fountain pen ink because other kinds of ink used to be made earlier for printing. Perhaps, the earliest person to make fountain pen ink in India, and the making of fountain pens pre-dated the making of fountain pens proper, because as I said, there are other forms of ink and those were readily converted into fountain pen ink.

What about fountain pens?

Quite often you will have heard that the first fountain pen in India was made by Ratnam. KV Ratnam, Ratnam 302, depending on whether you want the indigenous version or the part foreign version of 1932 or 1935.

They were a family of goldsmiths in Rajahmundry. They met Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji said, why don’t you make something useful instead of making gold jewellery, and hence they started to make fountain pens. This is the normal line you will find, and quite often the Ratnam pen is, therefore, given as a gift to visiting dignitaries, or sometimes taken as a gift like the last President did. But the first person to make a fountain pen in India was Radhika.

By around 1907, fountain pens seemed to be made everywhere in the world. So, Dr Radhika Nath in Lucknow began producing the Lakshmi pens, which were fountain pens, and there were also Stylo pens. In Stylo, you could unscrew the top. The same pen could function either as a fountain pen or as a stylo. A stylo had a tip. Dr Nath took patents not only in India, in the US, in Europe as manufacturers of fountain pens. But nothing much happened after that as India continued to import pens.

Sometimes, foreign fountain pens needed to be serviced. The dealers who started repairing eventually became fountain pen manufacturers. So, by 1947, the foreign fountain pens existed in India along with domestic fountain pen manufacturers.

Originally, the ink used to be in the form of tablets which needed to be dissolved in water. One of the earliest manufacturers was Krishnaveni. There were some people who would remember Camelin, as a maker of ink and fountain pens. Camelin, actually stands for Camel Ink. The producers decided why not call it camel because camel conveys the impression of being able to travel a long distance without water. So those tablets became camel, and when it started making ink proper, that camel and ink combined to make Camelin.

Sometimes, as a figure of speech, people would say gamma. He was a world-famous wrestler — world champion in fact; of course, he hailed from what is today Pakistan. It was all the unified country then when gem and company started to make fountain pens, they were looking for a brand name, and some of these were large pens. Therefore, their brand name was called gamma. Particularly in the 1930s, there were a lot of manufacturers’ centres, particularly in Rajahmundry, but all over the place many of these were small scale.

So, as I said, at the time of Independence, there were the foreign manufacturers, there were the domestic manufacturers also, of ink and nib fountain pens. Many of them were, of course, small scale, by which I simply mean, small in size. I don’t mean small scale in the sense of the small-scale sector reservations. We will come to that in a minute.

When independence happened, it would have been normal to expect that all of these would coexist and, therefore, depending on the customer’s wishes, I would buy a foreign pen or a domestic one. The first blow that happened, so to speak, was a report, which we have quoted in the book, which recommended that one should clamp down on imports of ink, and it recommended that over a period of time, there should be a 37% import duty on ink, on grounds of self-sufficiency. People who know about economic policy know about the policy of import substitution.

Similarly, over a period of time, there was a clamping down on imports leading through to the 1950s. All of these became very difficult to import. So, there is virtually no protection from imports. However, oddly enough, if you look at the first trade agreement we had with China, both countries were very similar in terms of development trajectories. Both were trying to diversify from agriculture into manufactured production.

And, at that time, China had only one fountain pen manufacturer to speak of, which was subsequently nationalised and, which we know today as Hero. In that first trade agreement, we signed an agreement saying that we would import fountain pens from China. So, we completely closed imports and competition from imports except from China.

We next come to the 1960s, wherein there is a list of 47 products that were reserved for protection due to reserve for production by the small-scale sector. Small-scale sector reservations simply meant that no new entrant could enter into the production of that particular item. In that list of 47 items, you will find fountain pens.

Soon after that, there was the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act and the tightening up of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, as a result of which you will know about IBM exiting, you will know about Coca-Cola exiting. You may not know that Pilot India used to exist and Pilot India at that time used to employ almost 150 workers. Pilot, a subsidiary of the Pilot company, also exited after their labour problems. Then there were the Sanghvi brothers.

I thought Pilot employed about 150 workers, which was large for its time, the Sanghvi brothers here employed about 250 workers. So, all these closed down. The consequent result was no protection from abroad, no competition from abroad, little competition from within the country and these fountain pens that we started off by talking about, these were what are called Eye Droppers when you filled inked directly into the back. Technology evolved, technology changed.

These days, anyone who uses a fountain pen, will use either a cartridge or a converter. Eye Dropper pens are used only in red, because of this protection there was inefficiency, as a result of which people tended to say that Indian fountain pens are more of fountains and less of pens. But inevitably the competition would come, the competition came with liberalization, the competition came with the removal on restrictions on imports.

The competition came in the form of FDR because most Indian fountain pen manufacturers are MSME, who used to profit from a protected market. They did not upgrade technology; they did not invest. So, they could not survive. Therefore, many of them closed shop. They moved on to other products, or if they remained in writing instruments, they moved away from making fountain pens to making roller ball pens, gel pens.

In the last 20 years, there have been some new entrants also. I tend to think that we will never have hundreds of fountain pen manufacturers. Why should we need hundreds of fountain pen manufacturers in the small-scale sector? But we will have about 10 fountain pen manufacturers who are able to compete and able to sell in the global market and. I do not know whether you know – at least people who use fountain pens will probably know that recently William Pen which is actually an Indian company, has bought over Shepperds. As it had bought over Lapis Bird earlier.

I will not mention names, but I can think of four or five Indian fountain pen manufacturers today, who are capable of taking on competition from anywhere in the world. I know that Chinese pricing is not very transparent, but even then, I think they are capable of taking on something like Jinnah provided. They generate economies of scale provided they invest in technology, provided they invest in marketing and distribution.

I have been talking about fountain pens, let me quickly mention India makes some of the best fountain pen ink in the world. Unless you are talking about fountain pen manufacturers who use proprietary nibs like, let’s say, Cedar, India makes some of the best nibs in the world, outside of Germany, and China, where quality can often be somewhat uneven and erratic. India makes some of the best nibs in the world.

When you buy a foreign pen, you will sometimes not realize that the nib there might have actually originated from right here in Kanpur. This is roughly what the book explains. It also has pictures, colour pictures, some from my collection, some from Soban Ray’s collection, some from John Ganguly’s collection.

I think every reader will find this book interesting because as I said, it is about the history of economic policy making, it’s about the history of fountain pens and it is about how wrong economic policies brought about the demise of the industry. Since those policies have now been rectified, we as authors hope for the best for the Indian fountain pen industry.

(Bibek Debroy is the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. This article is the edited version of his speech at an online event organised by EGROW Foundation, a Noida-based think tank.)