Presenting Harmony's silvers - sparkling lives, success stories, accounts of endurance, courage, grit and passion
Mohammad Imtiaz, 58, & Mohammad Reyaz, 55

In the ink of health

Author: admin

In Kolkata’s ‘pen hospital’, a pair of brothers resuscitate old and ailing Parkers, Sheaffers and Montblancs

I still have the pen I used to write my first love letter. I like to think that the fountain pen that scripted my declaration of love has something to do with the fact that the lady and I are still together. It was a Chinese-made Wing Sung but, mind you, it was no nasty rip-off. These were times when ‘Chinese’ didn’t mean ‘cheap’ and letters could say what the heart and mind couldn’t.

In times when the written word was savoured and measured, the fountain pen was worth its weight in gold. And when our favourite pen took ‘ill’, every Calcuttan headed straight for the ‘Central Pen Hospital’. Located in the heart of Kolkata, in the iconic Esplanade area, this nondescript yet remarkable shop-cum-repair centre was the last hope for those who adored their fountain pens.

Set up in 1945 by Mohammad Shamshuddin, when foreign makes like Pilot, Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Montblanc and Pelican, along with the Indian Artex, Caravan, Doctor, Diploma, Wilson, and the Chinese Wing Sung were the envy of all, Central Pen Hospital never sent a customer back disappointed. The business then passed to Shamshuddin’s son Sultan, and then his sons, Imtiaz and Reyaz.

Operating out of a makeshift structure in the Smith Brothers building—ongoing work on the Kolkata Metro has displaced the shop from its original premises—the ‘pen hospital’ once even rubbed shoulders with the aristocracy. “Back in the day, the dentist of the Governor of West Bengal lived in this building, and our grandfather and father used to service the dentist’s and the governor’s pens,” says Reyaz.

My mind goes back 40 years, when my father, a connoisseur of pens, used to bring me to the pen hospital. Customers and pen aficionados would take a seat behind the long wooden reception table to wait their turn. One by one, the slightly portly owner Mohammad Sultan, in spotless white Lucknowi chikan kurta and Aligarhi pyjama, would meticulously attend to customers, one at a time, examining the pens they laid out for him to resuscitate or repair. The ‘hospital’ had a special license to import genuine parts and original makes of a variety of pens.

Like their father, the brothers approach their work with the passion of a surgeon. I watched as an elderly gentleman walked into the shop and asked Reyaz if he could fix his ballpoint pen. The pen doctor worked on it for 10 minutes before declaring it ‘dead’. Imtiaz took a closer look and declared with regret that the pen was a new-generation Chinese make or perhaps even a copy. Hence, he confirmed, they didn’t have the required spares to repair it.

The incident rolled back the years to when my copywriter friend Chitro Sen took his father’s precious Pilot pen, which had developed a fault in its suction system, to the pen hospital. Its pin had also broken off. The then owner, Sultan, took a week to fix it up as good as new and presented Chitro a bill for the princely sum of ₹ 25.

“The new models of today are tricky to repair because of the unusual fittings with which they come,” Imtiaz tells me. Reyaz, who is juggling a spring, a rubber tube, water, liquid detergent, a piece of cotton cloth, buffing brush, polish and a pumping converter system, looks up, briefly, and adds, “We save old pens for their spare parts because there are many people who still love their old pens and want them in working order.”

Sometimes, the job calls for innovative solutions. “In April, a gentleman brought us his Golden Swan fountain pen for repairs. It had developed problems with its ebonite rod. We had to cut a ‘rod’ of hard rubber to size, file it to create grooves and then fit the nib onto it,” recalls a triumphant Imtiaz.

The brothers reveal that repairing pens is not their primary source of income but their passion for the craft has kept it alive. Imtiaz points to a glass cabinet that displays restored but discontinued models of Parker, Sheaffer and Montblanc pens—these are sold to collectors. Among this collection is their prized possession—a Montblanc Meisterstuck. The conceited but elegant fountain pen forces your gaze upon her super-sleek body. She’s haughty but she’s earned your respect—as has the pen hospital.

—Shilbhadra Datta

Photos: Shilbhadra Datta
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
October 2018