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Spice of Life | A look back at times of pens, nibs and writing

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When I started schooling more than seven decades ago, great emphasis was laid on good handwriting. We were made to do writing practice on a wooden board, called ‘takhti’ or ‘fatti’, carefully smeared with Multani ‘mitti’, with a pen known as ‘qalm’, fashioned out of a reed, generally of an elephant grass. The ‘qalm’, about eight inches long, was chiselled obliquely and tapered at one end with a penknife or discarded razor blades giving it due shape. The ink, called ‘siaahi’, was made from soot scrapped from the fire side of a ‘tawa (roti making plate)’ bound with ‘keekar (acacia Indica)’ glue. Making of the ‘qalm’ and ‘siaahi’ was a supreme art, as the finesse of writing depended largely on it. ‘Khush-khati (Urdu for beautiful writing)’ was the epitome of scholarship those days.

Senior class students wrote on paper with factory-made pens, specifically designed to take on different replaceable nibs. Their ink came in tablets that would be dissolved in water to give the desired (generally blue) colour. Sealed ink bottles of many makes were also available, albeit costlier.

Different nibs were used for different purposes. Beverly nib was used for general writing, while, Proper English was written with a nib called G Nib. For English writing practice, the notebook pages had four lightly printed horizontal lines to guide the writer. The G Nib, when expertly pressed, gave the desired font. For writing proper Hindi and Punjabi, a thick nib called Z Nib was used.

Fountain pens, though in vogue, were frowned upon, as allegedly they spoiled the handwriting of young students. Many Indian brands were available before the cheap Chinese pens flooded the market. Western pens were expensive, generally out of reach of the common man. Possessing an expensive fountain pen thus became a status symbol irrespective of the writing prowess of the owner.

Ball pens appeared in India in the mid-1950s. Initially, they were imported and hence costly till Indian-made ball pens entered the market a decade later. Surprisingly, official documents signed with ball pens were not valid as the then regulation demanded that they be, “ink signed”. It took time for wisdom and better sense to dawn upon the bureaucracy to realise that material used in them was indeed ink (and indelible too). When the Gel pens appeared on the scene at the turn of the millennium, even the ball pens felt relegated to a lower position.

With the advent of computers, printers and voice typing, all accessories associated with hand writing are becoming redundant. ‘Khush-khati’, that had been kept on the highest pedestal for eons, has become extinct and fountain pens that had once threatened the ‘qalm’, too, stand as an endangered species. The ‘siaahi’ died long ago and the ink bottles too are not easily available and nearing obsolescence.

“Who writes with hands these days, there’s a keyboard for this,” said my grandson when I chided him to improve upon his handwriting. He’s right; it’s a matter of time when the art of writing with hand would itself become history. brig.harwantsingh@gmail.com

The writer is a Mohali-based army veteran

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