An abridged version of this story appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore (July 2008).
Sometimes I marvel at the (r)evolution there has been in the stationery kit of the average school students. In our days, the kit was simple and straight forward. There was a pair of pencils and an eraser. The “sharpener” was the old Erasmic shaving blade discarded by father (typically after 21-23 days of use; we could know this as father would write on the inner flap of the blade cover the date on which the blade was first used). The eraser of course was the basic one, a grey one branded “Sandow”. We used to eye with envy the very few guys who would carry a “scented” rubber, nice soft and white with a little multi-colour picture on one face. The pencil too had many designs. There was this plain vanilla cylindrical one which was the lowest priced, but the problem with this used to be that the tip would break pretty often and what was worse that the “lead” would occasionally slip out through the other end of the pencil. To counter this malfunction, there was another type of pencil which had a thick black lacquering at the non-writing end which would prevent the slippage of the “lead”. This design is still current and the accepted design. However, this had a small problem. Unlike the simpler version one could not sharpen both the ends to have a two-in-one pencil so useful in emergencies when one of the tips broke! The snazzy mechanical pencils were virtually unheard of those days. One or two kids (with-aunt-in-USA types) did have them, but these were objects of worship and were handled reverentially by the owners who would not part with them, not even for an innocuous demo!
And these aunt-in-USA types would also show off the set of felt pens (or sketch pens as they are currently called) which would turn us all green with envy. Whole sets of 12 or even 24 pens in a plastic sleeve. Three shades of blue and 4 of green and so on… What us mere mortals had was a small box of wax crayons. Each crayon would be coaxed onto paper to leave an colour impression in the outline drawn. Oh, the felt pens were so much better and easier to handle. But, anyway….
As one grew older, (I think from Std Four onwards) came the need for an instrument box, what we used to call a geometry box. Inexpensive tin boxes with compasses and dividers. Camlin was a much coveted brand but generally beyond the reach of most. The compass had multiple applications beyond drawing circles and arcs. For instance this was a handy device to create holes in a crumbling book to facilitate passage of thread to hold the pages together. Also useful for a little disciplinary poke to a classmate.
Simultaneously with this came the fountain pen. We longed for the day when we would graduate from a pencil to a pen. Transition from being a mere kid to a grown up! What a joy a simple fountain pen would get into our lives. The whole process of filling a pen. A plastic dropper would suck a quantity of ink (Chelpark, Royal Blue, always) from the inkpot and it would be instilled into the barrel of the pen. The top of the pen would be screwed back into the barrel. The ink overflow around this joint would be wiped with some scrap paper (or furtively with ones fingers if no one was watching). Then a quick scribble on a piece of paper to ensure that the ink flow was right. The nib would be twisted and curled at odd angles to facilitate better ink flow. Pens held at odd angles to the paper depending on which angle would help write on the paper.
These days I notice that for our kids, buying a pencil means buying a whole boxful of them. Pencils in sets of six. And pencils in multiple designs. The aforementioned black lacquered pencil is the basic version now. Then there are mechanical pencils and long pencils with favourite Pokemon characters as crown caps affixed to the other end. There are fat pencils and there are naked pencils (pencils without any wood sleeve). Courtesy the return gifts at various birthday parties (in our times gifts was what a guest took to a party, but this is another story……) my sons have a plethora of scented erasers, sharpeners, glue sticks, Pokemon pencil hats, crayon sets, pencil boxes to choose from. Depending on what catches their fancy, the relevant stationery object is pulled out, used and discarded. It is that simple! And the coming-of-age symbol, the fountain pen? I wonder if they would have ever seen one. This is the era of gel pens! Buy, use and throw!
How would I have known when I was growing up that the stationery world is so dynamic!!