Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Discovering the Fountain (pen) of Youth

As a symbolic step in re-connecting with my past, I recently bought myself a fountain pen. I was transiting through the airport in New Delhi on my return to the US after an extraordinary two weeks in India. Among the many shops and kiosks that attempted to lure the traveler into buying one more or one last trinket or indulgence, the name William Penn, in bright red, drew my attention from afar. I had lived in Pennsylvania for 9 years, and the name of its founder brought back associations that were incongruous with being in an Indian airport. 'The World Pen Store,' written underneath the name in smaller letters cleared up my confusion. I smiled, not just at the pun, but also at the idea that there was an entire store devoted to writing instruments. The presence of this store was comforting. The ongoing brouhaha in many US elementary schools over the diminishing importance given to penmanship and the apparent preference by some of computerized assignments in place of handwritten ones came to my mind. It occurred to me that in some indirect and elitist way this store seemed to address that problem. I imagined a magnanimous equivalent of a Bill Gates using his $12,000 Montblanc to sign a cheque that would go towards promoting handwriting skills in privileged elementary school children who only knew how to type their names. And even while I was immersed in this absurd reverie, I knew that I wanted a piece of that elitism - if for nothing else but because a fountain pen could connect me to my past in ways that no other single item could.

In school I had taken pride in my penmanship. To my schoolgirl vision, the form was just as important as the content. I had an early interest in writing. In imagining the manuscripts of writers, I had visualized carefully handwritten stacks of paper making their way to publishers; then I had been disappointed to realize that the finished product of published books were typeset, depriving the author of showcasing her penmanship. I had an early disillusionment in publishing.

I took an interest in calligraphy, and spent much time manipulating the slant of the chiseled nib and perfecting the direction of the strokes. I was an enthusiastic letter-writer, and a card-maker. I would re-write my letters entirely if they had too many corrections in them, and I would discard versions of birthday cards because the calligraphy of the birthday message was not evenly matched in slant or size. My pre-occupation with the form of the hand-written word was enabled and encouraged by the generosity of uncles and aunts living abroad returning with Parkers, Sheaffers and calligraphy pens with interchangeable nibs. As a school girl, I had owned a sizable collection of fountain pens; and now, over 20 years after I had graduated from high school, I didn't have a single one of them in my possession. Finding myself by happenstance at the counter at William Penn, with only a few more hours left in India seemed like a sign that was hard to ignore.

I followed the curve of the display counter showcasing pens by Dupont, Montblanc, Caran D’Ache and Omas, until I had come full circle. I realized then that not only had I been unaware that such stores existed, but I hadn’t even heard of some pen-makers who evidently made very expensive pens. As an aspiring writer, that was two strikes against me. I consoled myself with the knowledge that even if the brands were unfamiliar, I knew which of the letters in their names were silent. I resolved to not let a third strike against me occur too easily.

My travel to India was an unusual journey in that it entailed many 'firsts.' It was the first time that I had left my two young children behind in the US for an extended period. It was the first time in 16 years that I had spent my birthday with my parents and extended family in India. That I was celebrating a milestone birthday, my 40th, made it all the more significant and memorable. It was also the first time in many years that my days centered solely around my needs and my pleasures. Aside from the obvious satisfaction that my self-indulgence afforded me, my trip back to my home in India was one of discovery. In the two weeks that I spent with my family, and in the many meetings with friends, under circumstances and in settings that were reminiscent of time spent together more than 2 decades ago, I discovered things that I had forgotten. I discovered that some relationships endure, through absence, distance and even neglect. And those are the ones that matter. My relationship with writing is one such.

Buying myself a fountain pen was a gesture that would serve dual purposes: It was a symbolic step in re-connecting with my past, and it was a literal first-step in beginning this blog, for much of the writing here has stemmed from my musings in a note-book, rendered through my newly acquired Lamy. This blog is an experiment in writing. I don’t know what direction or focus it will take, but I begin in the spirit of the advice that Seepersad Naipaul gave to his 18 year old son:

"In writing one must have something to say, but if one wrote only when one thought one would say the right things, one would seldom write."