For Republic Day, I was asked to track down a Wilson fountain pen which was owned and used by Dr BR Ambedkar to draft India’s defining document – its Constitution.
But at some point, the story of my search became more interesting than the whereabouts of the pen because of what the latter signifies – a period in a remarkable time.
The Story Behind India’s Second Pen
My first and only lead was a story archived in the Indian Memory Project written by the granddaughter of Dwarkadas Jivanlal Sanghvi, the founder of Kiron & Co, the company of Wilson pens fame.
Dwarkadas and his brother belonged to an impoverished family in Gujarat. They began their entrepreneurial journey by buying pens from traders and selling them on footpaths in Rangoon, Burma. When World War II broke out in 1941, Dwarkadas’ family shifted to Calcutta, where he set up a thriving Kiron & Co.
Whiffing success, the brothers shifted to Mumbai. They bought Wilson nibs from USA, assembled the pens here and sold them across India. These pens resembled the more elite Parker Vacumatic pens. By late 1940s, the business grew and they began manufacturing their own pens – even other brands. But Wilson had become the choice of India – from government offices to law colleges to schools.
Repeated union strikes finally shut the business down in the 90s, but not before the two put India on the map of the international fountain pen industry.
- 01/03Nib design. (Photo courtesy: Munson Pens’ Blog)
- 02/03A colourful Wilson box used to display and sell ten pens at a time, seen here with one on top. (Photo courtesy: Munson Pens’ Blog)
- 03/03A Wilson pen kept next to a Parker Vacumatic. (Photo courtesy: Munson Pens’ Blog)
But, where was the pen now? Purvi Sanghvi, the granddaughter, could only point me to an old newspaper article which had last placed the pen with Arun Kamble.
Of Kambles & Ambedkars
Arun Kamble was the founder of Dalit Panthers, an anti-caste organisation created in the 70s. In 2006, he spoke to the press about possessing Ambedkar’s 60-year-old thick, orange pen and being in talks with the British Museum to display it. Kamble was given the pen by SS Rege, Ambedkar’s assistant for safe-keeping, along with love letters and personal notes in 2001.
Rege passed away in 2001 and Kamble was found dead in a lake in Hyderabad in 2009.
He didn’t hand it over to the government because they hadn’t created an exclusive university and museum for Ambedkar; he didn’t give it to Ambedkar’s alma mater, University of Mumbai, because they hadn’t agreed to change their name in his honour. I checked with the curators of South-Asian artefacts in the British Museum too. No one knew where the pen was.
I don’t have any pen. My father didn’t mention it to me ever and it was a long time ago. Even after his death when we were shifting all his things, I didn’t find any pen.Aparant Kamble, son of Arun Kamble
I had read about Prakash Ambedkar, his grandson, being involved in a legal tussle with People’s Improvement Trust (PIT), a group with close association with the Dalit Panthers, over Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai. He wanted to rebuild the area as a museum and library in Ambedkar’s memory through public contributions. Maybe, he tried to come by the pen?
I don’t know anything about [it]. Neither did Mr Kamble approach me regarding it. I don’t want to get into any politics. That entire generation had died now; everything from that time is gone.Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr Ambedkar
The political tension over Ambedkar’s legacy was apparent throughout. The Kambles still hold sway over the PIT, and he strictly did not want to comment on who might have the pen after Arun Kamble.
Rummaging Through the Internet
I looked for solace in world wide web. I was looking for the smallest mention of the pen in forums, newspaper archives and museum catalogues. I didn’t find the pen, but I was quickly distracted by snippets of historical treasure that sprinkled my search.
While wading through vintage pen restoration forums, I came across Prem Foundation, an online community of 400+ members, which existed solely on Google Plus. It was made in the memory of Prem Behari Narain Raizada, the man who single-handedly calligraphed the first copy of the Indian Constitution and designed our Preamble.
The master calligrapher produced beautiful script on 251 pages of special parchment paper to compile the longest hand-written constitution of any independent country in the world. Around 432 nibs were used for this prestigious job, which he did for six months straight – without any remuneration.
The Prem Foundation has been cheering for a Bharat Ratna or Padma Award for the forgotten man who actually created the Constitution of India, for the last several years, to no avail.
A Road Trip Is in Order
I was getting angsty. Who can help me? Has this pen really slipped through the cracks of time and is lost to history?
I decided to get in touch with Sanjeevni Majumdar, Director of Symbiosis Society’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Museum and Memorial in Pune. If this pen was sitting four hours away from me in Mumbai, a road trip was imminent.
No, we don’t have the pen and neither were we approached with it. I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to comment on anything political. We do have the desk on which Babasaheb sat and worked on the Constitution with all his books, and his Bharat Ratna, which he was awarded posthumously.Sajeevni Majumdar
That lead concretely came to an end when she said she couldn’t think of anyone who could help me with my query. But, she had already laid down the bait. This Republic Day investigation would be incomplete without a pilgrimage to the museum with the largest number of Ambedkar’s articles in India.
The next thing I knew, I was in a car somewhere between Mumbai and Pune at daybreak.
Over 400 books, Dr Ambedkar’s death bed, belongings, letters and inn stamps, and rare photographs both from his personal life and professional life, were housed in this museum. The sincerity with which this man set out to raise a newly-independent infant India into an equal and just country could be felt in the room.
When I saw the desk on which he sat and worked and his silver ink pot, I could all but see that elusive Wilson pen, absentmindedly abandoned in the middle of an open Nationalism & Liberty.
If there had to be an end to my hunt for the pen which fleshed out the Constitution of India, the desk on which it made history seemed to be a poignant one.