It is a story from long ago. One idle afternoon, when everyone in the household was fast asleep, a four-year-old Putu gathered the courage to enter his dadu's (grandfather's) room. Very carefully he brought a pen out of the almirah with his little hands. But it was not just another pen. It was a fountain pen.
But the pen was empty from the inside. The inkpot was on an upper shelf. But it was Putu's day to conquer the world. So he doubled his height to get his tiny fingers near the inkpot. After much struggle that would put Robert Bruce to shame, he reached his desired pot. Then the very next moment, he dropped it straight on the floor. The ink did not just spread all over, it also sunk Putu in thick black liquid.
Still, Putu was happy. Finally, he had made some connection with the legendary Sulekha Ink!
An ink for independence
India, sometime between 1930 and 1934.
The Swadeshi Movement was at its peak. People were responding to the calls of Mahatma Gandhi to boycott foreign goods. But at one point, Gandhi found himself in deep trouble.
It was a time when local inks were yet to come into being. In order to pen down letters and other documents, Gandhi could not help but take resort to foreign inks.
"Wouldn't it be ironic to write the manifesto of boycotting foreign goods with the help of foreign ink?" thought Gandhi.
Then he decided it was high time India had its own, locally-manufactured ink. So, he contacted Satish Chandra Dasgupta, an activist of the revolutionary liberation movement, who was also involved in Bengal Chemicals.
Satish Chandra Dasgupta had once prepared his own ink named 'Krishna Dhara'. He handed over its formula to two brothers from Rajshahi, Nanigopal and Sankaracharya Maitra and encouraged them, "You two open a factory. The quality of your product will be even better than the foreign ink!"
The birthplace is Rajshahi
Mere words are not enough to open a factory; a big amount of money is also necessary. Fortunately, Satyabati Maitra, the mother of the two brothers, was also an activist. With their mother's blessings as well as their father Ambikacharan Maitra's lifelong savings, the two were finally able to set up the factory.
"Swadeshi industry is the backbone of a nation, foreign factories are adverse to independent India" was Sulekha Ink's slogan. The journey of "Sulekha-Works" started in Rajshahi in 1934. In the span of a very short time, so extraordinary was the demand for Sulekha Ink that a new showroom had to be opened at the Mahatma Gandhi Road in Kolkata in 1936.
In 1938, a new factory of Sulekha Ink was opened in the Boubazar region. Then, depending on the relation of the market, the factory was first shifted to Kasba in 1939, and thereafter to Jadavpur in 1946.
1946 saw another big development in the form of Sulekha becoming a private limited company. By the end of 1948, its annual turnover exceeded one lakh rupees.
In the 1960s, another two factories of Sulekha were opened in Sodepur and Ghaziabad of Uttar Pradesh. For a long time, Sulekha was able to spread its popularity outside the country as well. But it stopped coming to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) right after the partition in 1947.
Sulekha's business reached its peak in the 1980s. This was also a time when the company's total sale of units used to exceed one million bottles. It also had more than a thousand shareholders. In two shifts, from 6am to 2 pm and 2pm to 10pm, Sulekha's factory would run in full swing.
Sulekha gained such enviable popularity that it would receive requests of setting up new factories, not only from within the country, but also from outside the country. The first two ink factories in Africa belonged to Sulekha, as they responded to Kenya's plea to set up factories.
In the late 1980s, Sulekha's streak of success came to a halt, when Sulekha's factory became one of around 65,000 factories to be closed down in West Bengal under the Left Front rule.
Just like that, the company which had an 89% market share in eastern India in 1984, would crumble in just five years. And in 1991, the company went into liquidation.
Why the name 'Sulekha'?
Who came up with this name is still a matter of big debate. While some believe it was named by Gandhi himself, others say Rabindranath Tagore was the man.
Still, the question remains, why Sulekha? It literally means "to write well" and according to Barrister Falguni Maeed, "My father's 'Hatekhori' happened with Sulekha Ink, because it was said that one's handwriting would get better if written with this."
Greatness begets greatness
During the course of its glorious journey, Sulekha Ink became associated with great personalities like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rajendra Prasad, Morarji Desai and Bidhan Chandra Roy.
It was a favourite for some of the greatest writers of Bangla literature. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay used to write down the name of Goddess Kali a thousand times with Sulekha Ink every day before starting his writing. Hasan Azizul Haque used to bring this ink all the way from Bangalore and wrote his famous novel "Agun Pakhi" with a pen infused with this ink.
Satyajit Ray was so fond of this ink that he incorporated its reference in many of his works. Once upon a time, it was also the first choice for Bangladesh's very own Nirmalendu Goon, Helal Hafiz, Qazi Anwar Hussain and Khosru Chowdhury.
On top of all these greats, on being asked by his friend Hemendra Mohan Bose, Rabindranath Tagore once wrote for an advertisement of Sulekha Ink, describing it as "blacker than blemish".
Sulekha stayed shut from 1989 until 2006. Then it staged a comeback in 2006, though this time it started manufacturing homecare products instead of ink. In 2011, they began making solar panels too.
But the Sulekha loyalists always kept on demanding the return of what the brand had originally been known for. And the miracle happened in 2020 when the whole world was immersed in an unprecedented pandemic. During the lockdown, some enthusiasts opened a Facebook group named "Sulekha Ink Lovers", and started pushing the authorities.
Understanding that the Sulekha Ink still had a potential market, the current stakeholders decided to bring it back in 2020, that too in Sulekha's classic Swadeshi-themed packages.
Back to Bangladesh
After 73 years, Sulekha again returned to its original birthplace Rajshahi, with the best wishes and blessings of Hasan Azizul Haque.
Right now, Sulekha Ink is imported to Bangladesh by only one man, Mizanur Rahman Mizan. On the ground floor of Gausul Azam Super Market in the capital's Nilkhet area, Mizan owns a shop named "Dolphin International" where the ink is available. Besides, he also takes orders through his Facebook page "Pen Bazar BD" and offers a home delivery service.
Sulekha Ink at the moment has three sets of packages -- Swadeshi, Swaraj and Swadhin. Swadeshi has three, Swaraj has 10 and Swadhin has two variations of colours.
With specially made pouches in Shantiniketan, there are ink pots of three different colours (executive black, royal blue and scarlet red) in their limited edition. Every inkpot contains 60 ml ink. Overall, the package costs Tk1,500.
Recently Sulekha Ink also released two special series, "Sulekha Selam" and "50 Years of Pride", commemorating 21 February International Mother Language Day and the 50-year anniversary of Bangladesh's independence, respectively. Both are priced at Tk350.
A symbol of revolution
According to Jafar, who owns a stationery shop in New Market, Sulekha Ink might have come back, but nowadays only well-to-do or nostalgic people buy it. "Sulekha had tremendous popularity in the past. But now there are other good-quality foreign inks like Dollar, Pilot, Montblanc, Diamine available in the market. Why would people go for it?"
Only Mizanur, the sole importer of Sulekha in Bangladesh, seems to be optimistic about the future of this brand.
"People are gradually becoming fond of fountain pens again. When these new customers will come to buy inks in the market, they will get to know how pens also played a huge role in fighting the British. This will give them a wider knowledge of Bangalee's revolutionary past."
Thus, Sulekha Ink can still be etched on many Bangalee's hearts as a symbol of struggle, protest and revolution.