Jaan Bhai, has been sitting outside the Amman temple selling pens since 1974

Madurai Meenakshis ink master 85-year-old Jaan bhai has been selling pens for 4 decades
news Monday, February 01, 2016 - 08:26

Jaan bhai’s little shop is bang opposite the main entrance to Madurai’s Meenakshi Amman Street. As you walk towards the temple on Amman Sannathi Street, the East Avani Moola Street cuts across. To your right is Jaan bhai’s small shop where he has been selling, repairing and refilling pens for 42 years. If it isn’t for the antiquated name board ‘Janson Pen Centre’, one wouldn’t realize how old this shop could be.

Eighty-five-year-old B Mehboob Jaan, aka Jaan Bhai, has been sitting outside the Amman temple selling pens since 1974. He has seen pilgrims throng the temple for four decades now, and yet does not find anything else as interesting as pens. “I have customers who have been coming to me for generations. Jaan Bhai’s pens carry a lot of luck! Ask them,” he says, with a wide smile, which cannot hide his age better.

Before starting his small shop here, he was working at a pen company in Mumbai, and then later in Madurai. “But after that, I wanted to start my own shop, and it has been keeping me going for all these years.”

Jaan bhai knows five languages. And since he shared that factoid with me, he quickly switched between English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Urdu, showing off his linguistic skills. I tell him my knowledge of Malayalam and Urdu is rather poor, and he sticks to his near impeccable English for the rest of the conversations. He pauses to recall some words, but speaks with a clean and clear accent. “I was also the translator for the seth I used to work for before I opened this shop,” he says.

The Thoothukudi native is a great-grand father now, and has 7 kids, who he was able to provide for through his shop. “Two sons and five daughters, all married and settled,” he says with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

From the old Hero pens to the modern Cello and Reynolds, he has them all in his little shop. “Until a few years, we could not sell Hero pens openly. They were smuggled in. Now I can tell you that I sell them,” he says with a wink.

Business has changed over the years, he says, lamenting the Chinese invasion of the pen market. “So many items in the market today! I cannot keep track. And they are so cheap, they are killing Indian brands with the prices.”

He insists that he is able to do it because he takes care of his health, not just his passion for pens. “I sleep for six hours. I exercise every morning,” he says showing off his rock-solid forearm muscles, and I tell myself I hope he doesn’t ask me to flex and show mine. “And I read namaz five times a day,” he adds.

The digital age hasn’t hampered his business much, he says. “I still get at least 50 customers a day. Yesterday there was a retired magistrate here. He used to buy my pens when he was in St Mary’s school. Then he went to Law college, worked as a lawyer, and is now retired as a magistrate. He came to tell me he is surprised I have still not retired!”

I ask him for the oldest pen he has. He says his oldest pens are at home, but shows me a 40-year-old Hero ink pen. He says I can take it for Rs. 20. I insist that that’s too cheap, he says I can pay whatever I want, but I have to return to his shop another day, so he can show me his other pens.