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India’s pen hospitals continue to revive fountain pens

The tradition of repairing pens and pen hospitals is art wrapped as family business

Mohammad Reyaz (L) and Mohammad Imtiaz (R) at the Pen Hospital in Esplande, Kolkata. Picture: Mohammad Reyaz
Mohammad Reyaz (L) and Mohammad Imtiaz (R) at the Pen Hospital in Esplande, Kolkata. Picture: Mohammad Reyaz

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Mohammad Shahbaz Reyaz is in a hurry. He politely says, ek second (one second) and puts the phone aside. For the next two minutes or so, as different voices move across my ears like moody waves, I am transported to his famous ‘hospital’ in Kolkata, which has been treating its patients with the kind of love that only connoisseurs can probably grasp. As he picks up the phone again, I ask “Customers illaj ke liye aaye hai? (Have customers come for treatment?)”. He lets out a feeble laugh; the line is too used and too old, after all, he’s the fourth generation to run the bustling Pen Hospital. 

For the current generation, pen hospitals — shops that repair pens, mostly fountain pens – might seem like a vintage shops limited to curiosity and awe but about eight decades ago, they were a necessity. “Back then everyone had a fountain pen. Their popularity during my great-grandfather’s time was huge and people thought of it as an investment, so repairing them was a common practice,” says Reyaz, who runs The Pen Hospital in Kolkata with his uncle Mohammad Imtiaz.

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But 24-year-old Reyaz didn’t really understand this passion for repairing and maintaining fountain pens his father, Mohammed Shamsuddin, who started the hospital in 1945, had. Growing up he only comprehended what he saw every day—the shop was his father’s life. “He couldn’t stay away for one day. He was born, raised and about a year ago, even took his last breath here,” Reyaz tells Lounge. The pride in his voice tells me that it's something that stays with you. Now, the famous pen hospital in Kolkata is flocked by loyal customers and travellers who see it as an artefact, preserving a piece of history that is not even part of the memories of the last two generations. 

The first pen repair shop, which is still functional, is believed to have been started in 1937 by Abdulla in Thrissur, Kerala. After Abdulla passed away in 2010, his son Nassar has taken over the shop, as reported by Matrubhumi in February 2023. There are more of them, in the nooks and corners across India. The Pen Hospital in Kolkata was started in 1970 by Ravi Jain’s father, Mahendra Singh, about eight years after his uncle started one in Qatar. Ask Jain about fountain pens and you can almost hear him smile.

“The feeling of using fountain pens is very different. If you haven’t used it, you might not know. It’s a pen made for writing. You can do quick notes with ballpoint pens, but fountain pens are made for quieter moments. To record your life in journals or memoirs or pen down your observations about life,” Jain explains. 

The pen hospitals have changed over time, adapting to the newer generations' demands and desires. The one in Kolkata has more vintage pens than newer ones but has also expanded to repair ballpoint pens. Bhubaneshwar’s shop now also sells high-end fountain pens that costs up to Rs. 25,000.

“These pens are made of gold nibs, so they don’t break easily or rust. So, often people who come for repair have had these pens in their families for generations,” Jain says. 

Fountain pens offer something that ballpoint pens don’t—permanence. They seem to demand pause and care. But today, it has also adopted an elitist air. For instance, fountain pens are now seen through the collector’s lens—more to do with showcasing and less as something to be used daily. Reyaz talks about one of his loyal customers who has a cupboard full of fountain pens and had hired two people to care for them daily. “The value decreases if there are scratches or some fault with the pens so there are also those who go to different extents to care for their fountain pens,” Reyaz says. 

So, has it become the pen of the elite? Reyaz disagrees. “Fountain pens’ popularity is increasing. Eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds often come to our shop to either buy one or for repairs,” he says. Jain, on the other hand, feels their use is decreasing as more people are shifting to pens that feel more convenient. 

But both agree that the difference between the fountain pens of the previous generations and today is massive. From the material used to their design, there are not comparable. Knowing the answer, I ask which pens are sturdier. “Of course, the older ones,” Reyaz says instantly. 

As I talk to them, a realization seems inescapable—pen hospitals are doing more than repair, they are preserving an art form wrapped as a family business. Both owners gush about pens with such a delicate fond that feels as reflexive to them as it is fascinating to me. 

“People come from all over, tired and searching for someone to repair their fountain pens. When they come to us and say, ‘Dada, agar yahan nahi hua toh kahi nahi hoga (If it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen anywhere)', you feel responsible and try your best. It’s sad when some are beyond repair,” Reyaz says and pauses for a second. Looks like he understands it now: the love his father had for the pen hospital. 

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