‘Ink Pen’ Tales

This morning, VK gifted me a Hero pen out of the blue. He’d found it in CP yesterday, he said. It is brown, with a golden cap, and has ridges along the line where the ink barrel meets the grip. I was excited because I can’t remember the last time I saw this kind of a Hero pen – and yes, I have another kind.

My silver-coloured Hero pen is known to those who’ve known me well over the last two decades. I got the pen in 2000, and then it was a silver-grey ‘special’ Hero pen, with thin, Chinese designs in red and black paint. My father, a pen fanatic, got it for me. That year, if I remember correctly, most of my cousins in school were gifted this pen by my father, but I wonder if the pen meant anything to them as close to what it means to me.

The pen went with me through my biggest stages in life. I got through class 10 with flying colours. I struggled through class 11 and sputtered through class 12. As the board exam neared, my parents took me to a mass prayer session organised by the Kanchi math, in Vani Mahal in Chennai. I got a black, fat fountain pen that was ‘blessed’ by the seers. I used that pen for two of my exams, sticking to my beloved Hero pen for the rest. When the results came, I’d scored well in three exams, and less so in two – and you guessed it, those two were the ones I’d written using the ‘blessed’ pen.

That’s it. The role of the Hero pen in my life was cemented.

Hero went with me to my university entrance exams, after writing which I was so confident about making it that I bungled up the Indian engineering entrance exams. And get through to that university I did, and the pen went with me to Singapore.

As I navigated a new country, being alone for the first time and figuring out making friends with people who were different from me, the pen gave me solace. I used it for long letters to parents; journal entries that dripped with confusion and confidence, and even lecture notes, much to the amusement of some Singaporean classmates who used gel pens in a variety of colours to take their notes. Once, I left the pen in a friend’s room and realised it much later in the night, and spent an anxious night before I woke up and texted her to know that it was there, alright.

The pen journeyed with me through graduation, my initial years of working, and my Master’s. VK came into the picture, and was introduced to it too. Along the way, friends got to know about the pen and my attachment to it, and a friend from school could even tell that I’d written my card wishing her on her wedding using this pen!

I’ve spent many harrowed days believing I’ve lost the pen, only to see it turn up later (I almost feel like I’m jinxing it by saying this). Most recently, it went missing in my new house, and this time I resigned myself to my fate, saying I was pushing my luck too far. It was gone for nearly two weeks. And one day I moved a mattress and ta-da! There it was, my faithful friend.

So this morning I excitedly filled the new Hero pen with ink. With a lot of anticipation, I pulled out my journal to write my first few words with it. And…it was rough. And it smudged. The scratchy feel of this pen was starkly different from the way my silver Hero pen glides on paper. VK wondered if the pen was original at all. I said that fountain pens need to be broken into; I distinctly remember that the silver pen took some time to turn soft.

We then talked about our lives with fountain pens growing up, until gel pens and ballpoint pens took over. As children switching from pencils to pens, we were not allowed to use ballpoint pens, and so I remember that blue ink on our selves was a standard feature of most of us class 4 kids. We remembered blue-stained white shirts and skirts, blue streaks on our nails, and the ‘ink cloth’ that faithfully rested within our pencil cases to be called to duty in a moment’s notice to deal with an ink-based emergency. Those pens would need to be filled with ink; only fancy kids got pens which had suction-based ink holders or cartridges. Ink fillers were a necessity for the rest of us.

Fountain pens no longer feature in the lives of school-going kids, I’m sure. They hardly feature in the lives of most adults too, unless it’s a Montblanc or a Waterman. Yet, there’s something pleasing about using a fountain pen when you want to write in a journal or take notes in a meeting. There’s something meditative about filling ink – I’ve never been one for cartridges – and wiping out any leaks and testing the pen after the process. A friend recently told me how joyous it was to put together an ink pen in a quaint shop in Bombay – for all of forty rupees – and how she writes her journal entries using it now, and how happy it makes her.

A recurring theme in my recent writing has been about slowing down or being mindful of what I pack into my day. A fountain pen could be a part of the process, don’t you think? By harking back to an old concept, from a time where things were not as frantic, and a past that’s mine but also shared with generations before mine?

Sowkiyama?

A theme I come back to over and over in songs that I like is how easily they flit from one emotion to another. If you go back years on my social media feeds, you will see me praising one song or the other for this feature. Ruth aa gayi re. Rasathi unna kanaadha nenju.

Today, it’s Sowkiyama, from Sangamam. Obviously, I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, but somehow, this aspect of the song came to me one day when I was in a cab, waiting at the Chirag Dilli signal, anxiously clutching a bunch of test reports and wondering what my doctor’s appointment would yield. I was a nervous wreck – I was alone, and felt truly alone – and I was miserable, having had to miss a vacation that I was really looking forward to.

And into this melange of moods burst into song a bunch of girls accompanied by an enthusiastic veena.

Sowkiyama, kanne, sowkiyama?

Sadly, thinking or writing about this song evokes unnecessary imagery – of the punishment that it was to watch Vindhya play a Bharatanatyam dancer. I refuse to believe that there wasn’t another qualified woman they could cast.

Moving on.

I distinctly remember – sitting in that cab, Nithyashri’s words sent a surge of exhilaration through my body. I started observing every line, eager for the mind to stop thinking about doctors and hospitals. And nearly one year down the line, I’ve managed to write about it!

Barely two minutes into the song, I already have much to swoon over: the ghatam that comes in unexpectedly to take over from the mridangam for just a while. The control over her voice that Nithyashri has. It bends to her will. It brings to my mind a rivulet that’s playful, going steady for the most part but suddenly, just as you’d got used to its path, makes an unanticipated turn through a crevice in a rock – a navigation that you could expect from someone of her calibre, but is astonishing nevertheless.

I’m also stunned by the way the tune changes shape to accommodate the feeling in the lyrics, somewhat like a happy boggart, in this case.

… ena vizhigalil nadanamittai
pinbu idhayathil irangivittai
mella mella en uyirai parithukondai…

Only a few of Rahman’s songs stand out for me for the way the lyrics and tune glide hand in hand, like they do in this song.

The three sangathis of ‘Sooriyan vandhu vaa enumbodhu’ each convey a bloody different emotion:
– I have a simple question
– Do you still not know?
– It’s pointless – what can the pani thuli do, after all?

The next few lines are a mix of Nithyashri’s exceptional talent and the tune, and the master’s craft. As she goes from one line to another, she goes from expressing desire (kodi kaiyil ennai kollai idu) to a gentle warning (andha modhiram oddiyanamai aagum munname anbe azhaithen) to an outright cry of anguish (en kaatril swasam illai!)

If you had to visualise the way the tune jumps from the first ‘en kaatril’ to the next to the last, it’s like Nithyashri is guiding her voice along a veetu vaasapadi. A set of three steps flanking the porch. And it’s all wrapped up with a playful ‘adhu kidakattum vidu unakenna aachu?’ Don’t you worry, lover, I’m doing ok!

There’s more. The ethereal ‘pinbu idhayathil irangivittai’, sung so breezily that you can imagine someone stepping softly into another’s cloud-like, fluffy heart.

Not one to let up, Nithyashri gives us a parting gift with many moods of Sowkiyama towards the end – NINE, to be exact. Some of which are lucky enough to have chords lending gravity to their emotion.

I try to imagine the number of things that have come together to create this blessing of a song. I wonder about the people who lent their talent here – the kids, the divine saxophone player we’re all thankful for, the percussionists, the veenai player who makes you sit up and say towards the end ‘Did you hear that? Did you? Was it just me?!’, and so on. And at the risk of deifying, I try to map what might have been going on in the mind of the person who brought all this together. That’s a futile task – all I can do is thank him.