Telltale Pencil

Every year, 30 March is marked as International Pencil Day. It is the anniversary of the day when the American Hymen L. Lipman received the patent for a pencil with an eraser attached to the end. This was in 1858.

But there is another patent which is even more fundamental to pencils as we know them today—the one obtained by Nicholas-Jacques Conte’ in 1795. This was for the clay-graphite lead in the pencil.

In the 1790s, France was at war with most countries in Europe. Countries and people, all faced the multiple woes that wars bring (and as we are experiencing today). But the specific problem that is relevant to our story today is the shortage of graphite that France faced. In those days, pure graphite was at the core of pencils, and pencils were critical in war times. For instance, if anyone needed to send a note on the go, pencils were needed, as it was difficult to deal with quill pens and ink. Sometimes, fortifications or battle formations had to be quickly sketched, and that was easily possible only with pencils. But in those days, graphite for pencils used to come from England or Prussia, both of which France was at war with. The French War Minister thought of calling upon Conte’, a brilliant inventor, to solve this problem, viz, how to minimize the use of graphite and make pencils which still wrote clearly and for long? Conte’ had to come up with an answer in a hurry. He applied himself to the problem day and night, and after many trails and errors, came up with the answer: mix graphite powder with clay, press the mixture into moulds, and fire it in a kiln. With this process, a relatively small amount of graphite yielded a large number of pencils. By varying the amount of clay, pencils of various ‘hardness’ could be made—i.e., the more the clay, the harder the pencil. It is such an efficient process that it is still used today to make pencils.  

The mention of Pencil Day also brought to my mind a poignant story my grandmother used to tell me. I don’t think it is the story of any particular girl, but definitely reflective of the fate of many young girls a century ago.

The story goes thus…

Gomati was the much-loved only daughter of a middle class family in rural Tamilnadu. Her’s was a joint family and the warm-hearted Gomati was everyone’s darling. She had been married at 9 to a boy from an important family who lived quite far away—7 or 8 hours by bullock cart. She was now 14 years old, and it was time for her to go to her husband’s house.

There was joy in her house, but also a lot of fear and apprehension. Those were the days when in-laws had a lot of power over daughters-in-law, and could be quite mean and cruel. How would the in-laws treat their gentle child? How would she cope? They were so far away, they would not be able to meet her too often. And anyway, the mother-in-law had made it clear that there was no need to visit quite often. They were particularly worried because after the wedding, they had heard that the groom’s family was quite arrogant.

Gomati’s mother and aunts and grandmother; her father and uncles and grandfather; her brothers and sisters-in-law, were all worried. How would they even get to know how they were treating her? How relieved they would be if they knew they were kind to her. And if she were not, maybe they could go and talk to the in-laws and try to improve the situation.

They knew that her mother-in-law would read any letter before it was sent. There was no way that Gomati would ever be able to write the truth if she were being mistreated. How then would they ever get to know?

And then one of Gomati’s uncles had an idea. ‘Gomati, you will have to write only good things about your in-laws, your husband and your life. But if these good things are true, then write with a pen. If they are untrue, write the letter with a pencil. We will then know what is happening.’

So it was decided. And Gomati went to her husband’s house.

Everyone at her parents’ house was anxious for the first letter to arrive. They watched for the postman ever day. Till at last the letter arrived. Everyone gathered around for the reading. And what a wave of joy went through the house, for they could see the letter was written with a pen!

The letter described how happy and busy Gomati was, how kind each and every in-law was, how attentive her husband was, how every meal was a gourmet meal, and how no one let her do any difficult or demanding chores.

The relief and the happiness increased with every line that was read out.

Till the last line, which said: ‘I have everything that the heart could wish for. If I lack anything in this household, it is that I cannot find a pencil.’

–Meena