A tradition of fountain pens in Chennai

It is fun to be a visitor in your own home town, for this is when you really get to know it and not take it for granted. After visiting the Government Museum in Chennai for the first time in my life a couple of days ago, I paid a long overdue pilgrimage to Parrys corner, the classical market corner of Chennai in the old town and a stone’s throw away from the seat of the Tamil Nadu State Government at Fort St. George.

On this day, a few moments before getting in the cab, I decided on my agenda for the day, which would start with furthering my explorations of fountain pens by visiting Gem and Co in Parrys Corner. Gem and Co is popular in the Indian fountain pen circles for being there for close to a hundred years and as the manufacturers of the GAMA brand of pens.

The South Chennaiite in me had never heard of GAMA pens, for my school day fountain pens were mostly Camlins. However, even as I started developing a close association with fountain pens as an adult, it was inevitable that I would come across the name and I did. I managed to purchase a GAMA Kuyil pen, through ASA pens, who conveniently sell fantastic Indian handmade fountain pens online.

I love the GAMA kuyil, and would say that it is probably the best eyedropper fountain pen I have, for it never seems to dry up and goes and on and on, gliding on paper smoothly while retaining that little friction that makes fountain pens worth it! It has been a couple of years since I got my GAMA Kuyil, and a visit to Gem and Co, which has been in my priority list of things to do for a while, finally materialised this morning.

Once again, the weather was great and traffic light and my mum and I managed to get from one end of the city to the other within an hour, which should be treated as a good omen. The cab dropped us on NSC Bose Road, named after the great militant freedom fighter the details of whose demise has been the subject of much controversy and debate for decades now. We were standing right in front of the Government Law College, situated in the High Court grounds, and I ogled the brilliant-red example of the Indo-Saracenic architecture of Robert Chisholm. We had to cross the road, which is quite a challenge, and used the time tested formula of opening our palms signaling STOP to ongoing traffic, closing eyes and walking straight across the road, come what may! And trust me, it works!

Parrys Corner is known to be busy with encroached and otherwise packed pedestrian walks, and it seemed worse today with construction work for the Chennai Metro going on. I knew that Gem and Co was somewhere opposite the Law College and Kuralakam, which houses a handicraft market.

The market is a confusion of stores of varying dimensions and a menagerie of colours – and presumably lights during the more appropriate times of the day. It is part of the experience finding the shop of your interest among the chaos. In an effort to make sure that anyone who chooses to visit Gem and Co after reading this post does not lose the pleasure of discovering it, I chose not to photograph the site and post it here.

Suffice to say that we found the shop adjacent to a mound of construction garbage. It is located at the edge of a cluster of stationery stores. It is only a few steps away from another ancient and seedy pen shop, which offers pen repair services and sells fountain pens including the GAMA brand.

The Gem and Co store looks least impressive for the everyman and to the amateur enamoured by the gloss of a William Penn store! To the watchful eye though, the unusual predominance of fountain pens on display is striking. Gratifyingly, here is a pen shop that stocks only a few non-fountain pens, presumably for the convenience of the odd buyer looking for a writing instrument for immediate use.

The shop is a small square – it may be a small rectangle for all you know – and manned by two rather elderly gentlemen. The right wall is adorned by a small collection of handmade ebonite pens, including a GAMA kuyil, a desk pen and one of those classical milky chocolate ones with blacks swirls on them. For the uninitiated, ebonite is a hard rubber, which has been the go-to material for most Indian handmade fountain pen makers. These would cost in the low four digit rupee range, and were placed alongside many cheaper pens perfectly suited to the school goer, who can be justifiably expected to lose one a week (which is probably not too far from the average that I clocked).

On the left wall were handmade acrylic pens, in brilliant bright colours! These caught my fancy. I asked one of the elderly gentlemen manning the store to show me one, and he soon called the owner Mr. Pratap Kumar from an inner sanctum.

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A poorly-done photograph of my new GAMA pen. Apologies for the out of focus image shot with my tab under the flash light from my mobile!

The owner is a pleasant gentleman, happy to chat, and shares my boredom for stock branded pens, even the pricey ones. While I made my choice, buying a fat red acrylic pen with a black cap and rounded ends, I made some small chat with Mr. Kumar. He explained how the business of selling fountain pens is sufficiently satisfactory to him, especially as they have a trusted class of customers. They design and craft most of the pens they sell, which means they have to grapple with the problem of finding suitably skilled labour, and this he says is his biggest challenge. But they chug along, keeping the spirit of the easy to maintain and uncomplicated eye-dropper pens alive for at least one more generation to relish!

Even as I finished my purchase, topping it off with a few colours of the ridiculously inexpensive Bril inks – for whose who care, Gem and Co. stock as many as EIGHT Bril colours – and some advice from Mr. Kumar on pen maintenance, an elderly gentleman customer walked in and asked for the Hero pen, and with his dealing leading on to a discussion of the eponymous fake Hero pens, I was drowned by flood of nostalgia!

And for those awaiting a review of the pen, it is brilliant. Beautifully balanced, and flows without hiccups!

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A crappy scan of a sample writing with what I will call my Gama Red!

External Links:

  1. http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/topic/70913-madras-pen-shops/
  2. http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/survivors-of-time-a-pen-for-your-thoughts/article4238049.ece

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