For the love of fountain pens
Sitting at his store in Dhaka's Baitul Mukarram market, Mostofa Kamal Pasha was tinkering with a desk fountain pen that used to be a symbol of aristocracy decades back.
Being a fountain pen enthusiast, this correspondent could not contain his curiosity and had a closer look. It was a Sheaffer's Touchdown desk fountain pen with a 14-carat gold "Triumph" nib, a beautiful American specimen of penmaking from the post-WWII era.
"The touchdown filler does not work anymore, unfortunately. I will try to replace it with an aerometric filler that was found in some later Sheaffer pen models and see if the pen can be made usable again," said Mostofa, fondly known as Mohobbot Mostofa among fountain pen enthusiasts.
Over the next couple of hours, Mostofa, surrounded by numerous tools -- pliers, jeweller's loupe, silicone grease, and a tiny hammer, among others -- engrossed himself in reworking the pen's filling mechanism and discussed his 40-year-long journey into the rare profession of fountain pen servicing.
Mostofa is possibly the only person now involved in this profession in the country.
Born in Chunkutia village under Dhaka's Keraniganj upazila on August 24, 1962, Mostofa completed his SSC from Nayabari High School in Manikganj, and later got admitted to Jagannath College in Dhaka for HSC. However, having attempted HSC examinations twice unsuccessfully, after 1983 he stopped studying and got involved in different temporary jobs, before finally taking up fountain pen servicing as his profession.
"Back in those days, before cheap ballpoint pens became so widespread, fountain pens were the common writing tool. I used to tinker with mine and gradually got more interested in it, eventually making a living out of it."
"I also learnt from others who were involved in this profession. Almost everyone used fountain pens, and these pens required servicing. So, the profession was not so rare back then," he mentioned.
"However, after ballpoints provided a more economical alternative, fountain pens were hardly used, except only by a few connoisseurs. As a result, fountain pen servicing no longer remained a necessity for people, and the profession became lost [almost]."
"After I began in this profession, ballpoint pens soon took over and hardly a few entered this profession. Those who were then involved in the trade have passed away by now, and I am not certain if there is anyone else involved in it any more. I also sell other pens and stationery items in my shop, but my heart is attached to fountain pens," said Mostofa.
He shared his fond memory of repairing the then president Prof Iajuddin Ahmed's St Dupont fountain pen at the Bangabhaban in 2007.
Recently there has been a rise in use of fountain pens among the youth who are either collectors, or those who prefer sustainability, as one good fountain pen can serve its owner for decades with some maintenance, Mostofa said.
"Ballpoint pens, as cheap as they are, being made of plastic and often for single use, mean there is a lot of wastage. One will simply throw away a pen after a couple of week's writing, which means thousands of such pens are piling up and contributing to plastic pollution. It is not sustainable," he said.
"With just one fountain pen, you could write for years if you take care of it. All you need is to buy new ink bottles, which are not so expensive. The issue, however, is with paper. These days fountain pen friendly papers are not manufactured much, so users often find difficulty to use these pens to write on regular paper. However, there are some suppliers who are retailing fountain pen friendly papers, so the use is on the rise again."
Mostofa revealed that many collectors and enthusiasts come to his shop for servicing their fountain pens.
Brands like Parker, Pilot, Sheaffer's are more common, he said, adding that he serviced a few vintage Mont Blanc and Waterman pens as well.
When it comes to vintage pens, collectors often find those in not-so-usable condition. That is where the need for a good serviceman comes from.
Asked how one can learn to repair fountain pens, he said there is no proper training in this regard; one has to learn by tinkering with pens, know about different filling mechanisms, develop other skills like nib repairing and grinding, cosmetic repairs, and gradually garner experience.
"Reviving a pen to fill up with ink and write again gives me immense joy. That's why I have continued in this profession for many years and have so far repaired and serviced many fountain pens. However, I will still say I don't know enough. The world of fountain pens is vast, to be honest."
"I am probably alone in this trade at present, but I hope some others, who are young and more learned, will take up this profession in future and give life to this trade," he said.
"Also, I hope more people will begin to use these pens, even if not for regular writing but at least for hobby. Writing with fountain pens has a very unique charm and is a pleasurable experience. If one intends to improve his penmanship, fountain pens are the writing tools to go for."
By then, Mostofa was done with repairing the Sheaffer's pen's filling mechanism. He filled it up with water first to check if it was working. Once satisfied, he took out a bottle of Waterman Serenity Blue ink and filled the pen with the ink, cleaned the nib with a piece of cloth, and scribbled a few words on a notepad.
"Here, this is working again," he said, with a smile of satisfaction on his face.