I have always been fascinated by the stories that reside in old things. My grandfather's HMT watch was one of the few luxuries he allowed himself since emigrating from Bangladesh during the partition. Today, after a little love and care, the watch still keeps time in its faded off-white dial. For me it is a constant reminder of the punctual old man, with his off-white dhoti-kurta and smell of shaving cream. My mother's mother gave me an old ittar container that she inherited from her grandmother. The 19th century-sandalwood container was part of the dowry the shy young bride brought with her from a nondescript village in central Bengal to the capital of the Empire. Till date, it is rich with the lingering, bittersweet aroma of pure amber musk.
My search for similar stories has seen me scouring flea markets across towns. One midsummer afternoon, found me standing under the burning sun in Old Hyderabad . It was 46 degrees in the shade, the streets were deserted; and there I was, rifling through what could only have been tonnes of junk in search of something old with a story to tell. At that moment I wondered if I was in too deep, and where this madness would take me.
In time I discovered a fascination for vintage fountain pens. I would trawl through flea markets between reporting assignments in search of old nibbed treasures. A few months passed, my handful of old pens grew in number. Soon I became familiar with the vast underground network of collectors, repair-experts, and pen dealers that forms the backbone of the fountain pen community in India.
Each old pen conceals forgotten stories and lives. One of my recent purchases, an American Sheaffer from the WWII-era, revealed one such tale. I had bought the pen from under a dusty glass case from one of the last old fountain pen shops in the country, back in Calcutta. The Sheaffer Vigilant was a model that gained popularity in the US Army, thanks to its unobtrusive size and minimalist styling. It has a simple brown body and a small, two-toned gold nib. It's an ordinary-looking pen that you would not give a second glance but the design and construction ensures a no-fuss writing experience, even after upwards of six decades.
I noticed that my new old pen had a name engraved on it. Curious to find out more I embarked on a mad weekend spent, chiefly, glued to my computer chair. I scoured ancestry databases and US Army records at a manic pace. Soon I had a number of email addresses, Not really expecting anything, I fired a salvo of frenetic emails explaining that I was looking for the owner of a little Sheaffer pen.
Barely a week had passed before I heard from a woman in her forties from Dickeyville, a small town in Wisconsin. What she wrote made me do a double take. She claimed that she might know the story behind the little pen.
It turned out her grandfather, a certain Sgt. Kuepers, had been an officer in the US Army during the War. She confirmed that he had a pen like the one I described in my email. After the war he returned home to Wisconsin and set up a tavern, still in business and thriving for three generations. My email exchange with the Sergeant's granddaughter indicated that it was most likely the pen had been,purchased before the war, and stayed with her grandfather through his years in the Army. Sgt Kuepers passed away in 1991 How the pen landed up in India was a mystery neither of us could solve. She asked me to send some photos of the pen to share with the family, and I was only too happy to comply.
I picked up the small brown pen and held it against the light. The stripes on the barrel were iridescent against the light of yellow bulb in my bedroom. It was a five-inch long cylinder of metal and plastic that kept the soldier going, kept him connected to his family through countless letters, even as he was fighting the Nazis on the Front. The humble brown pen survived in the khaki vest pocket of the Sergeant through the War and beyond, bearing witness to the churning of the modern age as we know it.
A testament to resilience, the little fountain pen had a great story to tell—one that I am happy to pen for you today.