Limited edition fountain pens can be expensive and are never an average indicator of fountain pens or fountain pen markets. There are different lists of the most expensive pens in the world in which the dividing line between a fountain pen and an item of jewellery gets blurred. But across lists, among
manufacturers of the most expensive fountain pens in the world, Montblanc will find its place, along with Caran d’Ache and Aurora. Indeed, the average Montblanc fountain pen is expensive, limited editions more than others.
Not long ago, there was a controversy over Montblanc’s limited-edition Gandhi pen for linking luxury pens with the name of a man who stood for the poor and fought against poverty. A court case was filed regarding this issue in the Kerala High Court.
There were two limited-edition pens actually – silver and gold – a Limited Edition 3000, with three thousand fountain pens, and a Limited Edition 241 (named after the 241 miles of Gandhi’s Salt March) with 241 fountain pens. Both sets had an image of Mahatma Gandhi on the nib. Apart from the violation of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act of 1950, which restricts use
of the name or pictorial representation of Mahatma Gandhi, it was a bad idea to link Gandhiji’s name with pens that cost several lakhs of rupees.
There has been no controversy when the Aditya Birla group started to sell Eternal Gandhi products, including fountain pens. The reason is obvious – Eternal Gandhi fountain pens aren’t frightfully expensive.
It isn’t just a question of price. There is an element of incongruity in linking Gandhiji’s name with fountain pens, regardless of price. Mahatma Gandhi didn’t like fountain pens – he preferred reed pens, which were in use before the advent of fountain pens. By reed pen, he meant what is usually known as a dip pen, not a classic reed pen made from reeds.
This comes across clearly in several of his letters. On 20 March 1932, he wrote to Parasram Mehrotra, ‘There is not the slightest need for the girls to use a fountain pen. Really speaking, nobody in the
Ashram should need a fountain pen. Why should anybody be in such hurry? For students at any rate, it is certainly a harmful thing to use. The reed-pen is the best for writing Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu and other Indian scripts.’
On 13 May 1932, he wrote to Mirabehn, ‘It is well if you do without the fountain pen.’ On 17 April 1937, he wrote to Amrit Kaur, ‘If we are to re-introduce village articles after being used to the Western style, we shall have to be patient and inventive. That the pen requires constant dipping is a good point. It lessens fatigue. That the fountain-pen saves time is not an unmixed blessing. The village pen and ink undoubtedly admit of improvement. That can only come when you and I use these things.’ In October 1938, he wrote to Lilavati Asar, ‘And do not follow Mahadev’s example of writing with a fountain-pen. I tolerate Mahadev’s fountain-pen because Mahadev is a scribe. You are not a scribe and are not going to be one. So, I shall not, and I should not tolerate the fountain-pen in your case.’ On 28 April 1947, in his ‘Advice to Students’, he wrote,
For example, (1) when you get up in the morning you can roll up your own bedding; (2) help in preparing your breakfast and milk, etc., whatever you take, without waiting for your mother or anyone else to prepare it and serve you; (3) give a helping hand in sweeping and scrubbing; (4) do your own laundering; (5) help your mother with the cooking and cleaning the dishes; (6) make your own cloth by spinning regularly every day; (7) keep your books clean and neatly arranged, economise on exercise books as much as possible; (8) learn to do with a pen-holder and ink costing two annas, instead of a fountain-pen costing Rs. 50.82.
On 14 July 1947, in a letter to a child, he wrote,
You should give up your fondness for writing with a pencil or fountain-pen. Anybody who wishes to improve his handwriting should use a reed-pen. How can all the children in the country afford to use fountain-pens? I suppose you know how much a fountain-pen costs. If I was a teacher and had my way, I would forbid the bringing of a fountain-pen into the classroom. But mine has become a lone voice now. If you have any influence with your friends, popularise the use of the reed-pen among them.
Why was Mahatma Gandhi against fountain pens? The reason had to do with his ideal of a self-sufficient village economy.
In November 1934, in an article on village industries, he wrote,
In a nutshell, of the things we use, we should restrict our purchases to the articles which villages manufacture. Their manufactures may be crude. We must try to induce them to improve their workmanship, and not dismiss them because foreign articles or even articles produced in cities, that is, big factories, are superior [...] If this is the correct attitude, then, naturally, we begin with ourselves
and thus use, say, handmade paper instead of mill-made, use village reed, wherever possible, instead of the fountain pen or the penholder, ink made in the villages instead of the big factories, etc. I can multiply instances of this nature. There is hardly anything of daily use in the home which the villagers have not made before and cannot make even now.
In 1937, Mahadev Desai received a letter from Prabhudas Gandhi, which said,
Some time back in an article entitled ‘Wanted Rural-mindedness’, you recommended, as a step in that direction, the adoption of the reed-pen in the place of the fountain-pen. I was struck by your argument, and after reading Bapu’s interpretation of the A.I.V.I.A. membership pledge, I laid aside my fountain-pen and took to the reed, nine months back. I was not altogether unused to the reed-pen [...] After a month of baffling experience, however, I was again forced to return to the fountain-pen a sadder and a wiser man. The reasons which compelled the change were as follows: (1) It took three hours to copy out matter, using a reed-pen, that could be done with the fountain-pen in one hour and a half [...] (2) It took at least from a quarter of an hour to three quarters of an hour to mend one reed-pen by means of an indigenous village knife [...] (3) The fountain-pen enables you to make short jottings and entries, so indispensable in the course of village work, while standing, or while you are on the move. When I reverted to the use of the reed-pen, I invariably found that my diary-writing and maintenance of other daily records and registers fell heavily into arrears [...] Surely, it is no part of the policy of the AIVIA to slave-drive its workers to the very limit of their capacity.
Gandhiji responded through an essay titled ‘The Reed versus the Fountain Pen’ and said,
The village-dweller has not to work under high pressure or to speed about from place to place in motor cars and trams like the city dwellers. All this work is done by the easier and more natural modes of locomotion. Similarly the fountain-pen can have no place in his economy. I might, perhaps, reluctantly go so far as to admit the steel nib as a compromise, but that is all. The steel nib in my opinion has spelt the death of the calligraphist’s art the mending of a reed-pen was itself an art. It called into play the artistic skill and the personality of the scribe that was reflected in the characters which he traced. All that has gone with the advent of the steel pen. But the steel pen has not done even half the mischief that the fountain-pen is doing. The introduction of the fountain-pen in the village, to me, marks the beginning of the end of the existence of the village as such and its slow metamorphosis into the city.
This idea figured again in Gandhiji’s discussion with Maurice Frydman in January 1939.
Again, I dislike fountain-pens, but just now I am making use of one though I carry a reed pen about in my box. Every time I use the fountain-pen it hurts me and I think of the neglected reed pen in my box. Compromise comes in at every step, but one must realize that it is a compromise and keep the final goal constantly in front of the mind’s eye.
It was not entirely about the self-sufficient village economy though. There was a touch of Swadeshi to this idea as well. Pens—fountain pens or reed pens—require ink. On 15 December 1932, Gandhiji wrote to Jamnalal Bajaj, ‘Shri Kateli knew that we had a stock of the Swadeshi ink for fountain pen which you wanted, and, therefore, we have sent a bottle of it for you. We have quite a large quantity of it.’
In 1947, while advising students, he talked about fountain pens priced at 50 rupees. Though we don’t have official price indices that go as far back as 1947, in today’s prices, he was talking about fountain pens with price tags of roughly around 15,000 rupees. These were imported pens and they were expensive. Therefore, they were valuable enough to be donated. Thus, fountain pens figure in Gandhiji’s 1934 notes on Bihar. ‘At these meetings women have given their bracelets and men their rings, young students their fountain pens because they had nothing else to give.’
Excerpted with permission from Inked in India: Fountain Pens and a Story of Make and Unmake, Bibek Debroy and Sovan Roy, Rupa Publications.