I still distinctively remember the day my father literally wept over the loss of his pen. On my writing desk, I have two mugs holding all sorts of writing equipments—ink pens, gel pens, ball point pens, sketch pens, marker pens, correction pens, super liquid pens, pencils, pencils crowned with erasers and so on. At times, my grandson Ramana uses these to scribble his thoughts on the white walls and on the mosaic floor.
I do not take him to task for being rude to my pens. That is because more pens keep coming every time. Nagarajan, my friend from France, visits me or some old students of mine still interested in getting my blessings before taking up a new venture, present me with costly pens.
Ramana too has a big Spiderman bag, which he is forbidden to carry to school. And so he uses it as a container to hold the best of his possessions. A laptop with a failed battery, a computer keyboard that refuses to connect to the computer, all sorts of Spiderman pens, pencils, erasers, a long sized notebook, which he has converted into an album with Spiderman stickers, a box full of CDs of Spiderman movies and above all a plastic see-through container full of pens. But none of these would write for he finds delight in beheading them. No ink pen has the nib in its place and no ball point pen holds the refill. Ink tanks are pulled out only to be used as whistles.
My father had only one pen. It was an ink pen with a slender tank and a fine iridium nib. But for the nib, its entire body including its cap was completely black. Oh yes. The pen holder grip was made of black metal.
On alternate days, he filled its tank with Bril black ink and he never used any other coloured ink in his life. He used a pencil, blue on the one side and red on the other, both edges admirably sharpened with a 7 o’clock blade, he has used for shaving every day before he took his bath.
Oh! What a beautiful sight it made to see my father run the blade quite graciously on the pencil. Once the job was done, the pencil would resemble a double sided javelin. He would even test its sharpness by pricking anyone nearby. The bigger the scream, better the job done.
As the Store-keeper General — that was his designation — working for a cotton mill, managed by the French and the English, he passed for a dubash too. Since most of the mill-workers were all local people, they knew only their mother-tongue, Tamil, and my father’s presence was always necessary to put their grievances across the table.
Both the French and the English loved my father, for he solved all their problems connected with language… So fluent was he in all the three.
The declaration of independence drove the English away from Pondicherry, leaving the cotton mill to the care of the French. But time didn’t stop and they too had to leave. By the time the French left — that was seven years after the English vacated our country — I was only two years old.
When I grew up and entered school, I developed an interest in my father’s only pen. He was proud to carry it in his shirt pocket that was close to his heart. The pen accompanied him wherever he went and slept comfortably in his almirah drawer when he was in the house.
After the French left, my father lost his job as dubash but was made full time Store-Keeper General. So he used the pen in his office for maintaining account notebooks and the double-sided javelin for drawing lines with a ruler — red for the lines and blue for highlighting.
At home after supper he meticulously entered the highlights of the day in his diary and registered his spending on the day. The double coloured pencil, and the black pen played their role in both the diary and the account note book.
The two paise coins he was gracious enough to drop into the beggar’s bowl and a hundred rupee currency note he spent in buying medicine for my aged grandma, all found their entry in the register.
Today several of his diaries and account note books serve as raw material for my creative output. They tell me also in how many ways a pen could be pushed into writing.
Handwriting varies from individual to individual, they say. But in my father’s case, his handwriting varied from line to line. It’s all the magic he had done with his black wand. In one line it is smudgy, in another it is slender, and in yet another it is chubby.
Perhaps, writing was fun to him and he used the pen like the painter’s brush… different strokes at different times… Maybe for the heck of it. Or perhaps he wanted to show off… what his pen was capable of!
On a Sunday, when his pen rested most of the time in the almirah drawer, I sought his permission to use it to do my homework.
He simply shook his head.
I insisted… He once again shook his head. I wondered why he did so for he always nodded a “yes” to all my requests. And why should he shake his head for this small request?
“I’ll finish my homework within half-an-hour and return your pen safely,” I said.
He shook his head again.
“I’ll fill the tank with ink and return it to you… Please Pa.”
He shook his head again. “I gave you a Pilot pen only yesterday. You already have a Parker with you. Why don’t you use them? Why are you interested in my old pen?” he asked
“Just for the fun of it, Pa… Lend it to me now… I’ll never again ask for it.”
He shook his head again. “Three things should not be lent… pen, book and handkerchief. Once you lend them they will not come back to you. Even if they come back to you, you will not be able to use them again. They go out of shape” he lectured.
I smiled. He reciprocated my smile.
“Is your pen an untouchable or what?” I asked feigning anger. I could not be angry with him because I liked him so much.
He clucked… it was a cluck of pleasure. “It is the nib, my son. It is the nib that is the heart and soul of any fountain pen. The nib in my pen dances to my tune. It may not dance to your tune. Yet if you force it to dance, then it will definitely refuse to dance to me, understand?”
At that age I was unable to make any head or tail of what he said. It took a very long time for me to understand his words. And that was when my grandson, Ramana made my study his playground and my writing desk his battle-field.
“What is so special about your pen, pa?” I asked
Surprised my father laughed. “You know nothing about my Waterman.”
“I admit,” I said, “What is this Waterman? Sounds funny!”
“My pen is named after its inventor. Waterman was the inventor of the fountain pen.”
“Then it must be a very ancient pen… perhaps an immediate successor to the stylus,” I said with a grin.
My father nodded his head in approval before he said, “It is a very rare pen.”
“How did you get it?” I looked at his eyes wide open and full of curiosity.
My father looked at me intently for a few seconds. He then said, “It was a present from my boss’s boss.”
“Boss’s boss? Who is that?”
“Not he but she… My boss’s wife. That’s how my English boss wanted us to call his wife.”
“Why should she present you with a pen, pa?” I was quite innocent in my question.
My father moved slowly to the other side of the room to get a laugh. He then turned back and looked at me. “She used to give me 7 o’ clock blades, biscuits and chocolates whenever she received them from her native place, England. On one such occasion she gave me this pen. And so it is special to me, no to be shared with anyone.”
I left the matter at that. But what really began to gnaw at me was that mysterious laugh of my father at the other side of the room.
That too took a very long time for me to know the meaning … Years after my father’s death, when I began reading his old diaries, a legacy he had left for his writer son, I stumbled upon his intimacy with the boss’s boss. The affair that lasted for more than a decade is good enough raw material for weaving a beautiful love story that would bulge into a pillow-like novel!
The Waterman was a souvenir of their relationship, which the boss’s boss left with my father on her day of final departure to England.
I was just two years old then. Twenty one years later when I was struggling to establish myself as a writer, my father retired.
He came back home with a heavy heart as 44 years of service in the cotton mill was weighing heavily on his back.
“Quite natural,” my mother told me, looking at the sad visage of my father. “Time is the best healer”.
My father always looked cheerful and he was adept at hiding sorrows. In fact, he laughed his sorrows out. Since I have never seen him with such a face, as if he had swallowed five kilograms of ginger, I emboldened to tell him, “Pa! Nothing to worry. What if you are retired? Am I not hale and hearty to shoulder the burden of the family?”
My father hugged me and I could sense his hot tears trickling out of his eyes and falling on my bare shoulders.
“Not because I am a retired person now. I care hay for it. I know how to make money. I may not even need your help. But you see, I am sad because I lost my pen today… on my retirement day.”
“But pa, your pen was always safe in your shirt pocket. You rarely parted with it.” It should be only in your office. Search and you will find it,” I tried to console my father
“No! I think it is lost forever… gone with my job,” he wept like a child from whose mouth a tasty lollipop was pulled out with force.
I don’t know whether he slept peacefully that night or not. But on the morning of the next day, his pen, the soul of his soul, the heart of his heart, found its way back to him.
Several colleagues of my father, during the farewell party, gave him a farewell hug. During one such hug, perhaps it was a bear hug; the pen crossed pockets and lost its way. The lucky colleague after reaching home found my father’s pen dangling from his shirt pocket.
The lucky colleague was not unaware of how much my father valued the black pen and how much the loss of it could have broken his heart. No wonder then he rushed to meet my father.
He heaved a great sigh of relief at the sight of his pen. And the very first question my father asked his honest colleague was, “Did you use it?”
The honest colleague blinked his eyes several times and then shook his head. Before he left my father gave him a parting hug, all the time holding his blessed pen safely in his hand.
My father sat with a thud on the sofa and went on looking at the prodigal pen. He smiled, his eyes bright and dilated. I saw a couple of tears fall on his snow white dhoti. Were they tears of joy?
A few days before his death, my father handed over the key to his teak almirah to me and said, “Take care”. Perhaps those were his last words.
Death ceremonies over, I was advised to give away the dead man’s clothes to the beggars. Then all that remained in the almirah were only his diaries.
When I pulled open the right side drawer of the almirah, I found a plastic container that housed his wrist watch, a broken tooth, a couple of bank pass-books, a few hundred rupee currency notes, several coins of higher and lower denominations and his one and only black pen.
“Let them all remain there for future use.” I said to myself as I pushed shut that drawer, and then pulled open the other.
The left side drawer housed only a big envelope that tightly fitted into the drawer. I opened the envelope only to find a few photographs all in black and white. I began to look at them one after the other.
One photograph rivetted my attention. My father, a brown man, in his usual snow white dhoti and half-sleeved shirt, a white man with his bow-tie and a cork topee and a white lady in her gown that touched her ankle and with a frilled hat … all these adorned the picture. While my father and the white man were looking at the camera, the white lady sandwiched between the two was ogling my father lasciviously.
It was customary of my father to write the names of those in the photograph plus the date on which it was clicked. And so I turned the photograph over to look at the words written on its back. Yes… There were words all in my father’s slanting beautiful handwriting. It read, “My boss John Hardy, Esq; boss’s boss Mrs Catherine Hardy and Me. August 15, 1947 — The day she presented me the black Waterman.”
I kept all my father’s paraphernalia back in the drawer and used the entire almirah to hold the best books of my choice.And the key always remained in its hole.
On every death anniversary of his, my wife took out his wrist watch and the pen and displayed it along with the food of his choice, and a new dhoti and shirt in front of his framed photograph at the pooja room. The watch and the pen went back to their respective places afterwards.
Last year it so happened that my wife found the pen missing from the pooja room. “It was there along with the wrist watch yesterday in the pooja room. And now when I wanted them to go back into the almirah, only the watch was there,” she complained.
Everyone at home became panicky and did their best in ransacking the entire house for the lost pen. Nobody could find it.
While everybody lost hope, I waited for Ramana to return from school.
Ramana returned. After an hour or so I asked him. “Have you seen the pen?”
“What pen, Thatha?”
“What black, Thatha?”
“Pitch black, Ramana.”
“What bitch, Thatha?”
“Not bitch Ramana… Pitch black… The pen that was kept in the pooja room.”
“Oh that one,” Ramana said. “It is here”. He zipped open his school bag and pulled out his pencil box.
I was curious. Ramana opened the box and took out something and gave it to me. To my surprise I found that it was the tank of my father’s pen. Before I could ask him what he had done with the rest of the parts, he snatched the tank from me, and keeping it in between his lips he blew air into it and whistled a tune.
I can’t but smile at his pranks. “Look, Ramana. What you have is only the ink tank of the pen. Where are the other parts?” I asked him.
Ramana stopped whistling and asked, “What parts, Thatha?”
“I mean the neck, the nib, the feeder and the cap,” I said without raising my voice.
“Oh, you want to see the other whistle too,” he said in all jubilance and began to rummage his shorts pocket. He pulled out the cap of the black pen. Showing it to me he said, “This is a dumb whistle… it plays no tune.”
“Okay, boy. Where is the neck?”
Ramana showed no interest in my question. “Tell me where you have kept the nib,” I insisted.
“Oh, the nib,” Ramana said articulating the words as if they were taboo to him. “It is not writing… So I threw it away.”
“Threw it away? Where?”
“Into the bin,” he said before he ran to the kitchen and brought it back… neck, nib and feeder all in good shape.
I assembled my father’s pen and cursed myself for not cleaning it and filling the tank with ink.
“Give me my whistle,” Ramana said stretching out his hand. “If you want you can keep the dumb whistle for yourself.”
“It is my father’s pen. I will keep it,” I consoled him and promised to get him a nice little whistle.
Had only my father been alive…