Josna Rege

46. My Ink-Smudged Youth

In 1960s, Britain, Childhood, Education, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, writing on May 20, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Until I started using the computer more than the pen, I had a knobby callus on the end joint of the middle finger of my left hand. And until I came to America that callus was permanently ink-stained, because I am incorrigibly messy and because I used a fountain pen.

As primary-school children in Greece we were issued a supply of ink and a new postcard-sized square of blotting paper every week. I don’t remember exactly what kind of pens we used, but I think that we must have been issued them as well, because I can’t remember having my own. Our desks still had inkwells built into them, but they were already vestigial by my time, since fountain pens allowed us to fill and write for a long time without having to dip the pen repeatedly into the ink.

No matter how modern the mechanism, filling a fountain pen was a tricky operation for me, which I could never perform without getting my fingers and clothes covered with ink. The school-issued ink seemed to be impervious to soap and water, and when I started buying my own along with my other school supplies, I was glad to be able to use washable ink (Quink was my favorite, blue or blue-black); not that it helped much.

Along with covering our textbooks and exercise books with brown paper, a  pleasurable ritual of preparing for a new school year was stocking our pencil boxes with a filled fountain pen, a ruler, compass, and protractor, brand-new lead pencils, a pencil sharpener, and an eraser.  (Of course, we didn’t call them erasers, but I learned to do so almost immediately after coming to America when, at 15, I innocently asked a boy in my class for a rubber. It took me a long time to live that one down.) At school in India, where we were responsible for purchasing our own fountain pens, I gained some social capital by developing a method of marking my classmates’ pens with their names. Using the tip of a pin, I would prick their initials or their full names into the barrel of the pen with a series of dots, and then rub chalk into the holes to bring the letters into relief.  It caught on, and for a short while I was in demand, with everyone bringing their pens to me for “engraving.”

When I got to secondary school in England in the late sixties, ball-point pens—or biros, as they were known, after the company that produced them—were catching on, but the headmaster of our comprehensive school disapproved of them as an American import that led inevitably to the deterioration of handwriting—and, it was strongly implied, to the degradation of culture more generally. (He felt the same about the gum-chewing, which he described as “chewing the cud,” and abhorred as a foul American habit.) So we used only fountain pens at the Broxbourne School. I needed all the help I could with my handwriting, which had always been one of my weakest subjects in primary school (second only to needlework), so perhaps it was just as well that I was forbidden to use a biro.

Being left-handed and bearing down hard distorted my nibs into what eventually became a workable shape for me, but not for anyone else who tried to use my pen. I favored a fairly thick nib, because I was liable to rip through the paper with a fine-tipped scratchy one. Thick nibs also lent themselves to medieval-style calligraphy, which became a teenage obsession that involved creating thick, double-walled letters with large, spiky serifs and using diamond-shaped dots on the i’s as in Goudy type (akin, perhaps, to today’s teenage girls replacing the dots on their i’s with big chubby hearts).

As we got older and experimented with our handwriting as we experimented with our identities (mine imitated my mother’s, my father’s, and my boyfriend’s until it more-or-less settled into its own mongrel scrawl), our pens became signature possessions, dear to our hearts and to our idea of ourselves as scholars and writers.  When Gail Inaba’s father gave me a Sheaffer fountain pen as a college graduation present, I treasured it for years, and now I do the same for the children of my friends at graduations and bat/bar mitzvahs.

It’s interesting that many young writers of this generation seem to be returning to the fountain pen as they are returning to the manual typewriter, an instrument even before my time, for the trusty Smith-Corona that saw me through my undergraduate years was already an electric model. Filling and using the fountain pen becomes a kind  of ritual, perhaps, forcing one to slow down and take greater pleasure in the process of writing itself.  Of course these instruments coexist with the laptop and the iPhone, allowing for the high-stakes pleasure of creating  an unerasable original text and the high-speed practicality of editing, copying and disseminating it.

Today, I have a few old fountain pens knocking about, but use them only sporadically; when I do, somehow I still never fail to get my fingers covered with ink. My family says that I hammer the computer keys as hard as if they were the keys of a manual typewriter; that’s probably about as hard as I used to grip my fountain pen, giving me that characteristic inky callus that was a badge of my childhood. I miss it.

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  1. Great entry! I still have a fountain pen, but don’t use it any more.
    When I was in primary school, we were allowed to write with pen and ink once we got to 4th grade, but I didn’t have a fountain pen until I was in high school – so classy! 🙂


    • I agree, very classy (though, in my case also very messy!). I tell myself I’m going to use a fountain pen, and keep a bottle of Quink ink on the self above my desk, but in truth I rarely do. (My son, however, has found an elegant and functional German fountain pen which he uses all the time.) I can’t remember the point at which we switched from pencils to fountain pens–I know we used them when we were as young as 8 years old. My my son, the grownup thing he yearned for in third grade was to learn how to write in cursive. Thank you for commenting.


  2. Ah ha! so this is how you got involved in the A-Z.


    • Yes! Damyanti planted it my mind back in January, and then I forget all about it until I came across a mention of it again on March 31st.


  3. Also, I think a blog like yours would be wonderful for the A to Z Blogging Challenge this April. Please check it out.


  4. I miss writing with my pen. I do hand-write letters to people sometimes, or write my manuscript longhand, but that’s about it.


    • Thank you for commenting, Damyanti. It is so rare to receive a handwritten letter these days—or any letter for that matter, as most of my friends and family now use email or Facebook—that when I do, I treasure it all the more. In fact, I still have most of the letters I have ever received, since I can’t bring myself to throw away a handwritten personal letter. There is something so pleasurable about writing with a fountain pen, even though filling it can be a messy business (for me, at any rate!), and somehow I feel that one writes more mindfully with a pen in one’s hand (although perhaps I romanticize this). Do you write the first draft on your manuscripts in longhand and then type them up later, for the revision process? Take care, and happy writing. J


  5. One of my little Hungarian tidbits is that the ballpoint pen was invented by a Hungarian, Laszlo Biro (pronounced bee-ro rather than bye-ro). Wikipedia tells me that he got it patented in Paris in 1838 and then moved to Argentina immediately after the war, which I hadn’t known. Very fortunate that he did so, as the fate of Hungarian Jews was horrible — a ghetto, murders, trains to the concentration camps. The country still hasn’t faced up to it and seemed oblivious to their own antisemitism when I was in Budapest. Hungarians made sure to tell me that Biro was one of theirs but neglected to mention that he was a Jew who had emigrated. Maybe they didn’t know? So much is repressed there.

    Well, I hadn’t intended such a serious note, but it’s surprising, isn’t it, where the smallest of factoids can lead.

    My brother gave me a lovely fountain pen a few years back. It immediately got clogged and I’ve been unable to clean it, but can’t bring myself to throw it away. A few Christmases ago, I found some beautiful glass “quill” pens that came with sets of gorgeously colored inks, all nested in pretty boxes lined with marbled paper. I gave a sest to my niece in hopes that she’d enjoy messing around with calligraphy, but alas, don’t know if she did, or if it never made it out of the box.


    • Fascinating, Sarah. Beero–okay. I wonder if the Bic company ever paid royalties to him, or whether they developed the same process independently?
      Nikhil was given calligraphy kits in childhood that he didn’t use, but he’s always had carefully formed handwriting, and then after college he started writing with a fountain pen. So by giving such gifts you plant seeds that may lie dormant for a while, but you never know…


  6. What a wonderful Blog. Pens – although they never had as much significance in my life, as yours – remain treasured possessions. I’ve always enjoyed writing with fountain pens, and I did so for quite sometime in school. However, with computers and the internet having successfully supplanted the pen and the post; the most I get to write these days – apart from the scribble on the margin in the classroom – is when I write somebody a cheque. I make it a point to use one of those ink bearing uni-ball microtip pens to simulate the feeling of using a nibbed pen; and to date I will never write somebody a cheque or a personal note with a brio unless there is absolutely no choice. The summer rain never ceases to remind me of school time, which was, as you correctly pointed out accompanied by covering all our notebooks / textbooks with brown paper wrap (a mandatory requirement); filling our stationary boxes with HB pencils, fountain pens, stencils, rulers, protractors, compass and erasers (yes, I actually asked my friend Jayne for a rubber in the middle of class when I first got to the states – her response was quite humorous). We had those little redundant inkwells on our old desks, and I never did quite figure out what their utility was until I got to High School.


    • What a lovely response, Pinu. I love your association of the rains with covering the new schoolbooks. About 4 years back I was lucky enough to be in Kandivali on the night before Prathamesh was about to start a new school year, and it was such fun to accompany him down to the little neighborhood shops to buy his supplies, chief among them a new fountain pen. And you’ve reminded me that those uni-ball are fun to use, and less liable to leak all over one’s fingers than fountain pens are.


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