The outer walls of the Honest Pen Hospital are covered with images of a broken pen being carried on a stretcher and consultation times are neatly written on a slate board nailed to the top of the entrance. Naseer, the chief (and only) consultant at the hospital, sits behind a counter – a hole in the wall of a small room with a blue door and shutters covered with posters for the latest in pens. He has sat there for over twenty years now. His father before him also sat in this small two floor building on Palace Road in Thrissur, selling pens, nibs, refills, ink bottles and offering pen repairing services.
I had always been fascinated by the name of the shop and the graffiti outside but had never ventured inside. I first heard of the pen hospital in college when a senior asked if I wouldn’t mind going and investigating what exactly Naseer did in his seemingly eccentric establishment. I hadn’t taken the opportunity at the time and had all but forgotten the place until one afternoon last December when curiosity got the better of me and I finally decided to go in.
Naseer, a pleasant middle aged man who has devoted himself to the cause of the writing instrument, has many regular customers. He said business had not slowed down and the ubiquitous computer and paperless communication had not made pens extinct. People still trooped in with fountain pens and expensive ball pens that had to be repaired. On occasion, a customer would bring in an antique that had given up working after long years of service. From behind his counter Naseer the pen doctor tended to these patients and dispensed advice on how to take care of nibs and fillers and the proper use of inks. My disabled Rotring drafting pens, relics of my days as a student architect, could be cured too. Having tried a lot of different methods to get them to function properly – ranging from the orthodox soap water to the truly bizarre involving huge amounts of Sprite – and never succeeding in dislodging solidified ink, I had quite given up hope of ever using them. Naseer however suggested a simple home remedy and if that didn’t work, I was most welcome to admit the pens to his hospital. As we talked, small town Indian life passed by us. Bank clerks and teachers came in and gave their non-functioning Sheaffers, Parkers, Heros and Ratnams for repair. Naseer studied each one carefully and gave his feedback. Come back tomorrow, the day after and so on. He would have them ready.
Between twelve and one in the morning and after five in the evening when office workers drop off their sickly pens are the pen hospital’s busiest times. The conservativeness of places like Thrissur – the slow hesitation to dispense of trusted instruments for newer models – has helped Naseer maintain his modest business. The Honest Pen Hospital is the only one of its kind in India, probably the world. For all the flak that Kerala gets for being a business unfriendly state, where there are more hartals than working days in a year, niche businesses like Naseer’s continue to thrive.
He gets calls from as far away as Dubai or New Delhi from people who have woken up one morning and found that a beloved pen has stopped working. He works hard at saving these precious possessions. He does not discriminate between the superior and more mass market brands. All pens are special and worthy of equal treatment. All of them get his special attention and benefit from his deep expertise.
After visiting Naseer and viewing his cosy little shop dedicated to one of the truly great inventions of man, I wish that I had visited him earlier. The number of calligraphy and Rotring pens that I had disposed of because they didn’t work or their insides were clogged with hardened ink, could have been saved and I would have been a better person for it.