Chronicles of quills and ink of the mighty gama
CHENNAI: There’s a famous saying that a pen is mightier than the sword…and we’re pretty sure they weren’t referring to a ball-point pen. The gen Y & Z may not understand the value of writing with a fountain pen but the folks at Gem and Co on NSC Bose Road know it all too well. After all, they’ve been in the business of making, selling and repairing pens for more than 90 years.
They do have a huge hoarding but considering the choc-a-bloc of shops on the arterial road, it’s a blink-and-you-will-miss-it scene. As we enter, we see a huge model of a fountain pen, suspended from the ceiling with their home brand name — GAMA — engraved on it. And then, there are pens and more pens of every imaginable brand stacked neatly on rosewood shelves!
Gem and Co was founded by N C Cunnan and Venkatarangam in the late 1920s. Sitting at the counter, its current owner and grandson of Cunnan, Prathap Kumar, who has been in charge since 1985, claims that the store could be over a 100-years-old and possibly the oldest building on the China Bazaar stretch. “Back then, Indian fountain pens weren’t readily available and my grandfather and his partner imported them from Britain. Before starting Gem and Co, this was a grocery store,” he recalls.
“Fifty years ago, we started our own brand, Gama,” Prathap beams as he leads us into a small room filled with Gama pens. “We sell them even now, at a reasonable price. We choose the best from manufacturer; while other buyers sell their products in various currencies, we price them in Indian rupees only,” he claims. A generic Gama pen is priced from ` 50 onwards, and handcrafted pens can start from ` 500 to `10,000-plus. And yeah, the demand is still high for handcrafted pens! “High Court judges, advocates, and people who write a lot prefer fountain pens!” he smiles.
Gem and Co also specialises in pen service and repair. “We can service and repair any type of pen. We have spares for everything. But, earlier we used to get 50 to 100 pens for repair. Now we hardly get five!” he avers. “Back then, the shop used to be crowded all the time. To buy a single ink refill, people had to wait in a long queue. But now it’s all about use-and-throw. I still have the pen I used years back. For me, it’s a sacred piece.”
But the future of fountain pens is not yet bleak, he adds. “I have seen a comeback of these pens in the last two years. People seem to have realised their importance and prefer fountain pens, especially folks from IT parks.” Do IT people really need use pens at all? He laughs at the reporter’s shocked face, and adds, “They don’t have the time to write but most of them are tired of the monotony and turn to fountain pens to write.”
As we chat, Kanagasabesan, a regular customer of Gem and Co, quickly adds, “My family has been buying pens here since 1930s. I always buy the thick Gama pens and I buy only fountain pens for gifting. It improves the way you write and is the best for cursive writing,” he says, buying a dozen fountain pens.
The employees at Gem and Co — Srihari, Radhakrishnan and Kuppusami — are an encyclopedia of information. They’ve been working here for 50 years! “We know every model and every part. If a person describes the size or shape, we’ll figure out the exact model,” says Srihari. Kuppusami, an octogenarian struggles to recollect when he joined the store but remembers every single pen available. Finally, recollecting the year, he enthusiastically says, “I joined here in 1956…and ink pens should come back!”
With models such as ‘Gama Chennai’ and filigree pens yet to be launched, Prathap has a request to schools. “Fountain pens are the best and can give the best writing. Schools should encourage students to use it. Most schools have eco clubs, but no one realises the importance of fountain pens.”