Calcutta’s Pen Hospital

Mohammed Riaz never bothers to open his vintage fountain pen outlet before 2 pm, but the 90-year-old business still draws loyal customers from across the country
TRUE LIFE
INK NOSTALGIA Mohammed Riaz at Central Pen Hospital (Photo: RONNY SEN)

Mohammed Riaz is the proprietor of Central Pen Hospital, a 90-year-old business set up by his late grandfather in Calcutta’s historic Esplanade area. Riaz’s address is posh, but Pen Hospital, 7 by 12 feet in dimension, is really just a ramshackle kiosk with old wood and mirror panels. But it is popular among tourists and some out-of-towners, and its clientele is old and loyal.

The Pen Hospital moved from its main road location to the backyard of a formerly glorious Victorian building some years ago. Nestled between shops and hawkers selling cheap clothes and Chinese goods, this is the only place in Kolkata, and possibly all of eastern India, where pens, both expensive or otherwise, are repaired, and the vintage variety—discontinued models of Parker, Sheaffer and Montblanc—restored and sold to fond collectors. 

Delhi journalist Rajlakshmi Saikia, an old customer, recalls her collection of Chinese-made Wing Sung fountain pens whose nibs, when broken, could only be replaced in Calcutta. “I remember my father came [here] from Jorhat [in Assam} to have my pens fixed.”

It is a special destination in Kolkata, but Riaz, faced with slowing business, has sometimes considered shutting his shop down. This afternoon, only a tea stall nearby looks like it gets any steady business. However, Riaz, father of two schoolgoing boys, is determined that Pen Hospital keeps its doors open despite this age of keyboards and cheap, reliable stationery. “This shop is going to remain here. People may use computers, but big people, educated people, like lawyers and zamindars, will always have a favourite pen that will need to be fixed. If we go away, shut shop, where will they go? In Calcutta, history is everything.”

Kolkata’s folk are indeed comfortable with the old way of life—pavement stenographers, busy auction houses selling old furniture and bric-a-brac, slow-moving trams with Edwardian wood interiors, even its men-only cigar and bridge rooms at upmarket clubs—all dating to the dubious glory days when Calcutta was the capital of the British Empire.

Riaz also offers a less altruistic explanation for keeping Pen Hospital open. “They don’t make pens like they used to. This Parker 51, these Sheaffers,” he says, pointing to the most prized of his wares in a glass cabinet that also has a few Parker Duofolds and a Meisterstuck Montblanc, “last for generations. Nowadays, even if you buy a Dunhill or Cartier, it will give you trouble in four or five years, and if you go to all the big malls, they have these William (Penn) shops selling pens for thousands and thousands of rupees, which will inevitably need fixing.”

The chain-smoking Riaz is unfazed when asked if 2 pm was not too late a start for such an important establishment. “Calcutta is a late city,” he says. Many shops here, including pharmacies, close for a siesta. Morning rush hours, too, are more relaxed than the homeward rush in the evenings.

This laidback demeanour is aggressively compensated for by the hawkers next to Pen Hospital out-shouting one another to sell their goods. They were, however, unable to tell me where Riaz’s shop was. Riaz shrugs and retorts: “Many people know, or those who need to know [know].”

The building all these businesses are squatting in is involved in a property dispute between Kolkata’s Metro Rail and civic authorities, and the owners, a court case that has been dragging on at the Calcutta High Court since the 1950s. The 250-year-old building with wooden stairs and art nouveau cast-iron period railings looks rickety, smells of wet dog, is ramparted by piles of rubbish and debris and is probably rat-infested, but it once housed the East India Company’s businesses—a polished wooden plaque inside still says ‘East India Organic Manure’. Just across are a dentist’s clinic and laboratory that have been in operation since 1897. If not for the dispute and Bengal’s tenacious pro-tenant laws, the businesses may not have been able to retain their premises at such a central location. No one objects to their being here. In fact, the watchman and caretaker of the building, too, has set up a shop in the building’s porch.

“There was a time when Kolkata’s population was so low,” says Riaz, “that landlords asked tenants to move into their properties and pay when and what they thought was reasonable.” Pen Hospital, confesses Riaz, pays a monthly rent of Rs 250. Rent hikes in the state are strictly controlled—not surprising given that West Bengal was run by a Marxist government for 34 years, and now by the pro-poor Mamata Banerjee.

Riaz’s elder brother, Imtiaz, who dresses like a man of business and goes about without any ink on his clothes or hands, is less enthusiastic than his sibling about their future. “This building can be demolished any day, that is why people are sitting here in temporary shacks, hustling,” he says. But their ‘hustle’ at Pen Hospital has outlasted many other neighbouring businesses. For instance, a pucca shop across that sells denim clothes once sold radio sets and cassette players.

Imtiaz hints at lineage in the family business too. His two daughters are unlikely to inherit the business, but Riaz has two sons and hopes they will take an interest in it as he did when his grandfather was alive. Riaz remembers delivering his grandfather’s lunch from their nearby Ripon Street joint family home. “I would muck about with his eyeglass and the pens and he would let me,” he recalls fondly.

The elder brother, more taken up by the here and now, is frustrated. “When they (the landlords) fix this place up, build new shops and outlets, we may do something permanent... have a showroom, do it up. Then, (Riaz’s) sons may come to run it. Or they might choose to do a chaakri.”

The word ‘chaakri’, said with some derision, is a Bengali term that denotes working for someone who works for someone else—implying a kind of genteel slavery.

Meanwhile, a bald, bespectacled man, their first customer of the day, stops at the shop and gives Riaz a broken fountain pen. Their conversation is minimal. A cheap temporary replacement is chosen for the ailing pen, which will be left in Riaz’s able ink-stained hands for repairs. The shop doctor bounds out to fetch change for Rs 100. He returns and asks if there is anything else the customer needs. The man shakes his head, smilingly complains that the shop was hard to find, and leaves.