In The Fountain Pen, Meena--a bride in an arranged marriage in 1950s India--moves to live in the town where her new husband works. She met Arvind only twice before the wedding, and she soon learns that he doesn’t listen to music and prefers spicier food than her. He won’t even lend her his fountain pen. How will they ever get along?
About the Author
In addition to writing fiction, Sunanda J. Chatterjee is a practicing physician living in California with her husband and two wonderful children. In her free time, she likes to paint, read, sing, go on long walks, and binge-watch old TV dramas.
Sunanda writes romantic sagas and family dramas, with empowered heroines and noble heroes, and all manner of family relationships. Her novels are widely available. She loves extraordinary love stories and heartwarming tales of duty and passion. Her themes include the immigrant experience, women's issues, and medicine.
You can learn more about Sunanda’s writing on her Amazon author page or her website at www.sunandachatterjee.com
The Fountain Pen by Sunanda J. Chatterjee
In the dusty summer haze of central India, Arvind and Meena got off the rickshaw, unloaded their luggage, and entered their new home, a bare, cement-floored, unfurnished apartment provided by the steel plant where Arvind was General Foreman.
Arvind said, “It’s a new colony. I think a few officers have already moved in.”
On either side of the building, construction was ongoing to prepare for the influx of engineers and workers. The latest hits of 1957 played on a distant radio.
Inside, the smell of fresh paint lingered in the hot air, and a harsh sun streamed in through the bare windows. Dust motes swirled in the empty home.
Arvind flipped a switch, and the ceiling fan whirred overhead. “My friend stocked the kitchen with essentials,” he said, his voice echoing. “But we’ll shop for the rest later.”
He set his keys, wallet, and fountain pen on the windowsill by the door, and his hand brushed against Meena’s for a tantalizing moment. Her skin tingled. But he dropped his gaze and apologized.
Meena took in a sharp breath. Their arranged marriage was but a day old, and her heart thudded against her ribs. How was this going to work? Meena had met Arvind only twice before the wedding, in the company of family members, and their honeymoon was canceled due to a crisis at the steel plant. They had hurried to catch the night train; she had barely changed out of her bridal sari, her henna still fresh on her hands.
A month ago, she’d hidden behind the curtains in her parents’ home and overheard her future mother-in-law saying, “Arvind is ten years older than her. He is fixed in his ways.”
Meena’s mother had said, “She will adjust. She is a people-pleaser.” Her mother had lied; Meena’s sweet smile belied her acerbic, frontal manner, learnt from her freedom-fighter father who had gone to jail for the cause.
Her mother had later told Meena, “Arvind is no different than your father. Men like them dam up their emotions behind tough personalities. But you know . . . a broken dam causes floods and destruction. To make it work, you must open the sluice gates one at a time. Learn to be patient.”
Marriage was the last thing on Meena’s mind. “But Ma, I wanted to finish college before marriage.”
“This is 1957!” her mother had replied. “He will let you finish college. Trust me. He is a good match for you.”
Meena followed Arvind into the bedroom where he put the suitcases in the closet. His friend had placed a mattress on the floor and scattered rose petals across a garish bedspread.
Arvind blushed. “The furniture will arrive tomorrow. You can sign for it.”
She nodded, twirling the wedding ring on her finger.
Arvind cleared his throat. “You can take the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.” Her eyes widened, and he said, “We need to get to know each other.” Relief triumphed over disappointment; they had their whole lives ahead of them.
He left for work early the next morning, and Meena awoke to the noise of hammers and cranes. She peeped out the window but saw no one besides the construction workers. Was Arvind the only married officer? She retreated inside, a lonely ghost haunting an empty home.
After making a cup of tea, she unpacked her old transistor radio and tuned it full-volume to the local Hindi Film Music station. The DJ played her favorite song, the floors thrumming with the beat, and she twirled and twisted to its rhythm in the bare rooms, wondering if her husband liked to dance.
The doorbell rang at ten o’clock. Two deliverymen stood at the threshold, wiping their brows, sweat ringing their armpits. The furniture had arrived.
“Sign here, please.”
She spotted Arvind’s silver-blue fountain pen on the windowsill, unscrewed the cap, and signed her name with a shy smile. Meena Sahai. It was the first time she’d used his surname.
Once they left, she arranged and rearranged the furniture until it looked homey. Would Arvind like it or would he change it around? In the afternoon, she cooked rice and lentils with the few spices she found in the cabinet. She didn’t even know if Arvind liked his food spicy.
To fill her empty hours, she wrote letters to her parents, her sister, and her best friend. She liked the way Arvind’s pen felt in her hands; she could sense his rough fingers holding it. Was this how their connection would feel?
It was sunset when Arvind returned on his blue Vespa scooter and entered the apartment, looking exhausted. Her heart raced. He glanced at the living room. “Furniture’s here. Good.”
Having been silent all day, her voice came out hoarse. “I signed for it. You forgot your pen. By the way, can you post these letters on your way to work tomorrow?”
The frown that creased his forehead made her heart sink. He said, “You wrote the letters with my pen?”
She nodded uncertainly.
He opened his fountain pen, peered at the nib, and said, “Next time, use your own pen. If you don’t have one, I’ll get one for you.”
Stunned, she said, “I . . . I don’t understand.” Why was he upset? Didn’t married couples share everything? Her parents even shared their towels, damn it.
He spoke slowly as if she were retarded. “See the tip of the nib? The way I write, the nib gets rubbed one way. If someone else uses the pen, the tip will get ruined. Everyone has a style, see?”
“I see,” she said. What a selfish jerk! She bit her lip and frowned. “Dinner’s ready.”
As he washed up, she turned on the radio once again. The commercial for the newly released film The Bridge on the River Kwai finished, and the hit song began.
He said, “Can you turn off the radio? I am surrounded by noise all day.”
She turned off the radio, returned to the table, and sank heavily into the chair. “Will you get the college application forms tomorrow?”
He frowned. “What’s the hurry?”
They ate in silence at the Formica-topped dining table, the ceiling fan churning the heavy air between them. He was right. All she needed was a big dose of patience.
Bit by tiny bit, she began to learn Arvind’s ways. He liked his shirts ironed with special care to the collar. He preferred ginger to cardamom in his tea. His spice tolerance was higher than hers, but a few green chilies on his plate sufficed. Like a creek skirting rocks, she maneuvered around his moods and expectations, knowing that in time, water carved valleys and canyons into mountainsides.
One morning she found a red fountain pen beside her pillow. Her lips curled up as a warm feeling spread through her. She was examining the nib when Arvind came out of the shower and hesitated by the door.
She looked up and smiled.
He said, “There’s an open house at the plant. Would you like to come?”
“Do you want me to?” She wanted to go but wasn’t sure if that’s what he wanted. She was normally assertive, forceful. What had marriage done to her?
He said, “Do you know how rails are made?”
“I don’t,” she admitted.
“The iron ore and coke are heated in a blast furnace until it’s a red hot liquid. Then it goes through further processing to correct the amount of carbon in the alloy. Iron is brittle, see? But steel is malleable yet strong.”
Meena giggled at his enthusiasm, and he said, “Oh . . . you’re not interested.”
“No, I am. Tell me more.”
He blushed. “Um . . . then it’s poured and rolled into ingots, and then flattened and pounded into the rails. The rails our train traveled on were made right here. It’s fascinating.”
She hadn’t been out in days and agreed eagerly. Soon, they rode on his scooter, Meena sitting sideways behind him, clutching her purse in one hand and holding his waist with the other. She inhaled his fresh scent. It was the first time they had touched since moving into the apartment.
Meena followed him into the plant with a group of visitors where each was given a helmet. The heat inside seemed to singe the hair on her arms, and the din was infernal. She gained a new respect for her husband. The noise from the construction site was nothing compared to this; no wonder he didn’t like loud music.
The group stood on a thick metal mesh and peeped over the railing. Below them, the hot, fiery, lava-like alloy sputtered and crackled in a humongous bucket. Arvind had to shout to be heard.
As he leaned in to point to the alloy, his fountain pen popped out of his pocket, spun in a graceful arc, and plummeted down. It vaporized before touching the surface, the blue speck swallowed in red-hot liquid metal. The visitors clapped, assuming it was a gimmick.
Just then, a young man approached the group and handed Arvind a package. “Sign here, please.”
Without his favorite pen, Arvind looked around, befuddled. Then he turned to Meena. “Do you have your pen?”
Meena unclasped her purse, extracted the red pen, and unscrewed the cap. Her heart raced. She cleared her throat and shouted, “See the tip of the nib? The way I write, the nib gets rubbed one way. If someone else uses the pen, the tip will get ruined. Everyone has a style, see?”
A gasp rang out in the little crowd, and Arvind turned redder than the molten iron, his shoulders slumped like a day-old birthday balloon.
“But,” Meena yelled, “we can all learn to be malleable yet strong, like your steel.” She offered him the pen.
He let out a breath and took it gratefully. Once he’d signed, he led the group away from the platform. Meena felt his coarse fingers grip her hand and squeeze it.
“Thanks,” he whispered in her ear.
“I almost forgot,” he said, and he handed her a package. “Here, I got your college forms.”
About the Story
The Fountain Pen was written by Sunanda J. Chatterjee. In the story, a new bride in an arranged marriage in 1950’s India adjusts to life in a new town. The couple discovers each other’s boundaries; while she learns to assert herself, he learns to relent. The story is based on true events.
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