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Hero worship January 19, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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It was something I was absolutely sure I had not done in a long time. In at least 11 years. Probably as far back as 14 years when I last left school.

The fountain pen.

HP saw a Hero pen online and asked me I fancied one.

My face must have lit up as I said “Yes”.

What color ink?

When I said “Black”, I probably had just tossed a coin. I could care less about the color.

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Why would one say no to a fountain pain? Perhaps if one did not need one, which of course was the case here. But then how often do we buy things, sign up for memberships and subscriptions, pay more for features in gadgets that at the moment seemed essential but later seem like poor decisions. So it was with me in this case. At $15 – the pen and the ink – it was too inexpensive to be even called an indulgence.

There are our childhood developmental milestones – when one starts to smile, sit up, crawl and walk among several others. These are milestones we are ourselves oblivious of but that adults around us care about and keep track of. And then there are markers of progress that one keeps track of oneself. At some point I got old enough to take coffee/tea rather than a Complan or a Bournvita. At another point I was old enough to wear a watch. And yes, at some point I was old enough to graduate from using a pencil to a pen. That is, at least at home; it was a few more years before I was old enough to use one at school. Of course, these non-biological milestones are arbitrary – some are not even considered milestones in some households and the age you reach these depends on many factors, one of them being the presence of the older sibling.

Using a fountain pen was one of those milestones – you just had to be old enough to be able to do one.

All pens were not made equal. There was the ball pen, less fancy but more convenient and worked the same way for everyone. To my recollection, most ball pens were created equal in their user experience. Fountain pens were a different breed – they had to be held in certain position and each one wrote differently based on how and how long they had been used. The ink had to be filled from a bottle (often with a syringe (!)), these pens wrote better the more they were used until a point came where their nibs became too smooth and blunt resulting in a thick script which I am sure maps to some fancy font today. I remember that at school we were encouraged to use fountain pens because they helped discipline the practice of writing cursive and generally write legibly.

Now, even among the fountain pens there was a caste system – there were the ink pens with fat and short nibs and then the far more elite Hero pens with the thinner, longer nibs and the tip of the nib being visible. Some of them had a hood marked on the pen – for a while it was understood among friends that the hood was indicative of the authenticity of the Hero brand. I guess I have been so brainwashed that to this day I think the Hero pens look and feel way cooler than the regular fountain pens. 🙂 I spent 2 years in Assam in the 90s where these pens were called “Chinese pens”, rightly so since many of those had chinese script rather than the instantly recognizable “H E R O” on the bottom of the top. (“Niagara Solid” comes close)

So, yes, the Hero pen and ink arrived in the mail. Its amazing how they look, feel and work just like they did 25 years ago.

For the next few minutes, those moments I had long forgotten came back to me. The act of filling ink, spilling it, smell of it. In fact, I had forgotten that one does not need a syringe to fill ink in these Hero pens. I was soon on auto-pilot, the entire elaborate rigmarole came to mind – as I went back and forth a few times between dipping the pen in the bottle and twisting the transparent tube to let the ink flow down. When the pen would not work the first time, you shake it, let some ink spill, dip the nib in the spilt ink and get going again (Do not cry over spilt ink, just write through it). Oh, if you write on the wrong paper, it might blot too. It was like riding a bicycle after years, it just comes to you if you have done it before! I was that 11 year old again.

The pen itself wrote beautifully. Or wait, it is actually something about the pen that makes it hard to get away with scribbling sloppily. By forcing you to hold it in a particular position, it has already captured much of your attention and made the process of writing a conscious deliberate activity, almost an end in itself. It is like when you suit and boot up and generally dress to impress, everything looks up, at least for a while. The fountain pen, it may not make your writing better although it could fool you into thinking that it does.

Even today fountain pens are not in the league of floppy disks, VCRs and tape-recorders which have essentially been replaced by newer technologies. We have not given up on writing, but do less and less of it. I once wrote about how we spent much of our life writing and then transitioned to typing – at work, online and email – and along the way somewhere many in our generation got to a point where we had typed more stuff than written. Preteenagers of today have probably always been in that state.

That said, even when do write, fountain pen is not the instrument of choice. It now seldom makes for more than an exotic gift or the start of a nostalgia trip like the one you just took.

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