Montblanc's Gandhi Pen Prompts Howls in India

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 2, 2009; 1:37 PM

NEW DELHI, Oct. 2 -- Images of Mohandas K. Gandhi, father of modern India and icon of asceticism and nonviolence, have ended up in some unlikely places before, from ads selling Apple computers to counter-culture T-shirts.

But it's fair to say that the latest incarnation may be the most ironic: Gandhi, in his signature loincloth, hawking a $23,000 fountain pen named in his honor.

The Montblanc pen, unveiled for the celebration of what would have been Gandhi's 140th birthday on Friday, has prompted howls from Hindu groups and Gandhists who say the sticker price is the lifetime income of many of India's poor. The limited-edition fountain pen in 18-carat solid gold is engraved with Gandhi's image and tricked out with a saffron-colored mandarin garnet on the clip and a rhodium-plated nib.

"This pen is really funny. Gandhi would say it should be tossed in the trash or, better, sold off to pay for water and power for the poor," said Amit Modi, secretary of Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram, using the honorific Gandhi-ji. "Gandhi would have been ashamed."

Perhaps aware of the potential for a backlash, Montblanc made a $145,666 donation to the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation even before selling a single pen, said Tushar Gandhi, Gandhi's great-grandson, from Amsterdam, where he visited a Mont Blanc boutique that had already sold three pens. The funds are to be used to build a school and home for rescued child workers. The foundation also gets as much as $1,000 for each pen sold.

A billboard put up this week over Mumbai's teeming slums shows a gaunt Gandhi next to next to an image of the swanky pen, with golden threads woven around it to represent Gandhi's spinning wheel. The pen honors the independence leader, known as Bapu or father, who fought against unbridled materialism and even eschewed imported luxuries as harmful to India's mostly agrarian economy.

But today's India sees itself as a rising economic power, anxious to replace its old images of crowded slums and legions of beggars with shiny call centers, glitzy software campuses, and young cosmopolitan professionals with fake American accents.

"I consider the Montblanc pen their acknowledgment of the greatness of Gandhi. They are doing it the only way they know how," Tushar Gandhi said. "His writing implement was his greatest tool."

Montblanc is issuing only 241 commemorative Gandhi pens, a number that highlights the amount of miles Gandhi walked in his famous 1930 "salt march" to the Arabian Sea, a successful act of civil disobedience against salt taxes levied by the British.

Neeraj Singh, a Montblanc representative for India, said many Indian clients had already preordered the pen.

"We had a pen on Alexander the Great. We had a pen on Winston Churchill," he said. "If you want to do something on an Indian personality, then nobody is greater than Mahatma."

In India, the pens with their distinctive white-and-black star logo adorn the pockets of suits worn by business executives and political leaders as a sign of status, like a watch or tie. Some Montblanc store managers have said that most of those buyers so far are Bollywood stars and government officials. Although some Gandhi loyalists say India's founding father would have questioned why a public servant would spend $23,000 on a pen in a country with a third of the world's malnourished children.

"Gandhi would have wanted to share such a pen with the entire country," said Lydia Powell, an Indian economics fellow with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. "But today in India affluence is not negative, at all. Today India's youth are more likely to look up to Bill Gates rather than Gandhi."

Special correspondent Ayesha Manocha contributed to this report.

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