“You have too many already.”
I gave a guilty start.
But the stern admonition was directed at the younger girl who stood beside me, gazing as lustily as I was at the pencils in rainbow array display – some out of our reach and some at a tempting arm’s distance.
“You can’t ever have enough,” I smiled at her grandfather, inviting him to share in our love. But he just speared me with a scowl from behind his Gandhi glasses and determinedly rushed his ward out of the stationery store.
I looked behind me. My timekeeper was reassuringly arms deep in his fastidious love – mechanical pencils – discussing the merits of the increasingly-rare-to-find 0.7mm nib over the other more widely available nibs the shop assistant had tried to distract him with (and failed).
So I continued browsing, sending out a wish after the girl – that she has an aunt who’ll indulge and encourage her pleasure in ink and paper and graphite … as loves go, surely this love is the deepest kind, the purest thrill?
Arthur Miller described the stationery store of his childhood as a cave: ‘The stationery store was like a beautiful cave, always cool, always full of intriguing objects’. It sounds just like the one my sister and I grew up with. Nestled deep inside a particularly narrow by-lane where most of the other hole-in-the-wall shops were a gossamer spell of lace, gota and tissue, the shabby fronted stationery shop was our enchantment. Stolid brown midst the glittering spools of borders that blinged-up a blouse or lehenga or dupatta, but, to us, this hermetic rabbit hole was wonderland. Inside, the world faded away, time stopped and being alive meant being open to choices as confusingly tingly as the blotting paper on which the blots spread into rorschach patterns or the one on which the ink collected into an efficient blot of the same inky shade skies took on when a mystery was afoot. The goblin-like shopkeeper, if he was in a good mood, showed us his limited stash of bejeweled pencils, pens with multi-coloured nibs and glittering vials of sequins.
At the stationer’s –
We tested pens: The ball-points versus pilot-tips versus fountain pens versus gel pens debate was decided over words our grandmother taught us – ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains’; ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dogs’. And if it were a particularly smooth nib, the pen would run away on the page with ‘Supercaulifragelisticexpialidocious…’
We picked pencils: Not based on how sharp or how dark the nib-markings would be whence we committed words to paper, but on how their shavings would contribute to our ambitious mixed-media art projects (whorls of pencil shavings recreating van gogh’s starry nights or that forest we’d tramped through!) and how the pencils, whittled down to stubs, would do as legs for matchbox houses and as limbs on the battery-Santas we laboured over before X-Mas.
We appraised – nay caressed – paper: Blotting paper. Cartridge paper. Kite paper. Glazed paper. Felt paper. Chart paper. Recycled paper. (Much later, pleasuring in a lover’s touch, it came to me, that running my fingertips over paper, exploring texture and weight and such give, was probably my first sensual experience of touch, of feeling. And just the other day, running my hands over mull and flannel and mercerised cotton in the fabric market, I understood that dreamy, twinkly look that came into many an aunt and grandmom’s eyes at the prospect of going cloth shopping.)
No one, I think, has truly lived, unless they have run their hands wonderingly over rice paper or traced the golden ridges of an embossed book title.
Rulers, compasses, stencils and geometry sets got us dizzy with excitement: we delighted in drawing perfectly proportioned rainbow arcs, acute-angled prisms, kaleidoscopic refractions and fitting squares inside complete circles. (Alas this love never translated into better math scores, not even in trigonometry.) Crayons, colour pencils, chalk and paints brought on, what I came to recognise one floaty afternoon, our Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds transport.
Neon post-its, unfussy glue sticks, capped sharpeners, patterned adhesive tapes and binders with coloured pages, when they debuted at the stationery store, well, they took our breath away!
In my adult life, I rationalise yet another magnetic notepad or scissor or folder as my householder’s prerogative. Besides, each item is a compulsive purchase that celebrates the apotheosis of design. Surely form and function could never be as fantastically fused as in a stork-billed scissor that cleanly picks off drycleaning tags, that errant stitch, a loose thread with surgical precision? Or an art-coded folder organisation that makes filing bills and unpublished manuscripts bearable? Or a magnetic notepad with van Gogh’s Still Life with Absinth print that just begs a barfly note-to-self and a reminder to stock up on lemons to get through the tedious To-Dos?!
(In my book, such dishy designs are rivaled only by wickedly grinning crocodile cake knives, Pinocchio-nosed funnels, folding chopping boards and knife blocks… but kitchen supplies are an entirely different fetish, albeit as diverting).
Applied to stationery – art supplies, office supplies, school supplies – I like how the word implies that stationery is as much a necessity as vegetables and kirana essentials of oil and pulses. Something to sustain you, and not just an aesthete’s indulgence. It bolsters the utilitarian view touched up by whimsy, drawn from my father’s habit of packing pencils whenever he travels, so he can distribute pencils to children instead of the customary toffees in the villages he passes through.
I think our love of stationery has something to do with just this potential of a pencil in a child’s hands. It’s a love fed by creating and flow and beauty, of the joy of using our hands. Perhaps it’s the illusion of organisation. Or maybe because it’s important to find the little things in life that spark up the everyday!
To hold and to have – a stationery vow/dream come true, I’ve always thought!
Links more lucid about stationery-love: