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A Review of the ASA Nauka pen
By Bob Page

A Review of the ASA Nauka in Ebonite

By Bob Page



Can an object as humble as a pen offer a homily in human imperfection? This is one of the questions that the ASA Nauka, offered by a penmaker in Chennai, India, makes me want to answer.

Lakshminarayanan Subramaniam runs ASA Pens, an online and bricks-and-mortar retailer offering multiple pen brands and at least 16 models specific to ASA. It is difficult to type the 16 letters of his first name, and even tougher to pronounce them, so we’ll take his lead and just go with “L.” In 2015, Subramaniam began collaborating with Joshua Lax, president of the Big Apple Pen Club in New York, to create a pen based on the Sheaffer Crest of the 1930s, and the Oldwin Classic of 2002, created by André Mora for the Paris company Mora Stylos.

The Nauka positions the cap threads next to the nib and then gracefully sweeps, unbroken, to the end of the barrel. The Nauka’s huge cap looks like the stub of a cigar. Nauka means “boat” in Hindi and Bengali, and I think the name refers to the sweeping sheer line of nautical architecture. Uncapped, it’s about the size of a Montblanc 149. The development of the Nauka is equally as interesting as its conception, because it relied on an enterprising, prolific group of Indian pen enthusiasts who worked together to design, prototype, and market the pen’s first round of manufacturing. I’m not all that interested in the minutiae of dimensions, but if you are, they’re available on the ASA Pens website.

I ordered a couple of Naukas, including one in a mottled Indian blue-red ebonite and another in a tastefully elegant Conway Stewart acrylic material called “Dartmoor.” I had hoped the Nauka in Dartmoor would be gorgeous, and a joy to write with, and it is both. But what is remarkable is that the pen I have the most fun with is the humble, eyedropper-filled, ebonite model.

Part of this is related to this model’s gigantic 40-millimeter nib from Ambitious, an Indian company, with a black ebonite feed that supplies ink in reliably generous quantities. Whenever I write with it, at whatever direction or speed, however long it’s been sitting on my desk, the Nauka lays down a wet, glistening line of ink.

asa feed

nib asa

The nib and feed introduce what is interesting about the ebonite Nauka. The slits that form the fins of the feed, for example, are irregular in length. Maybe they’re hand-cut, maybe they’re not, but they’re definitely not uniform. The nib is gold-colored, and the only imprint contains the words “IRIDIUM POINT” wrapped around a circle. They’re a little eccentric. I don’t know, maybe there are too many letters to wrap properly around the circle. Maybe the nib designers ran out of energy and were rushing to make a deadline.

And nothing about the rest of the pen is uniform, either, because this is a hand-made pen, made by a human being on a lathe. They aren’t all that many Naukas out there – I’m guessing 300 at the most, but this blue-brown eyedropper is different from all the rest. Mine is clipless, and I found a bronze ring in the shape of a Lotus – the national flower of India – to serve as a rollstopper.


If you squint, you can see imperfections in the ebonite, little dark spots about the size of an opening left by a pin. If you use a macro lens to shoot photographs of the barrel surface, you see marks left by the tools that created the pen. I can see one tiny nick in the cap, exactly perpendicular to the cap opening, and when I see that nick I can hear a curse from the lathe operator who realizes the need to spend more time to smooth that out. He – I’m guessing the operator is a “he” – either smoothed out as much as he could without creating an even bigger divot in the surface, or finally said, “screw it, this looks good already.” Many of the lathes that turn ebonite pens in India are still foot-pedal operated, and I don’t know whether ASA lathes are driven by motors or feet. But I know the humans operating those lathes had a lot more on their minds than a 1-millimeter-long tool mark.

asa pen

In a wonderfully hopeful turn of phrase, one supporter of Indian pens wrote that ebonite is like wood, gloriously inconsistent, with the power to surprise and delight. I agree completely. There is much literature and poetry on the subject of human imperfection. Robert Browning wrote a poem called “Old Pictures in Florence” that, among other things, talks about lesser-known artists and how they contributed to the work of greater artists. The New York-based psychiatrist Dr. Janet Jeppson Asimov, widow of the science fiction author and biochemist Isaac Asimov, wrote an essay this year for The Humanist called “In Praise of Imperfection.” She writes that the imperfections of human brains actually improve the way we function. We learn more from mistakes than we do from successes.

When I was in university I had the good fortune to spend a few days in Venice, and one afternoon I was admiring the irregular lines of a gondola along a bridge where there were lots of gondoliers. The gondola, as you probably know, is an asymmetrical boat, because the oar sticks out on the starboard side. The port side needs to be longer so that it doesn’t turn to the left all the time. And the gondola is heavier at the bow than at the stern, to account for the weight of the gondolier. If you stare long enough at the polished black sides of a gondola, you see undulations and imperfections. As I was staring at the surface of one of these gondolas, hypnotized by the play of light and water on the shiny surface of the wood, I told a gondolier that it was beautiful. He responded that it was beautiful because in it you see the hand of the human being who made it.



Writing sample


Text and images © 2016 Bob Page

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