Bapu would have laughed at the Gandhi pen
By M J Akbar
Why did the world’s most famous, and priciest, makers of writing instruments launch a lakhpati pen in the name of a man famous for wearing nothing more than a handspun loincloth? They did not honour Mahatma Gandhi because research turned up fascinating data suggesting that the world’s millionaires had overnight converted into apostles of non-violence and abandoned their T-bone steaks for goat’s milk. The reason was that its marketing department identified India as their best growing market.
Modest ink pens used to be a staple of Indian stores, with stained-finger schoolchildren as customers. The triumph of the ball pen has reduced that to a quaint memory. Having lost its base, the pen showed astonishing powers of reinvention; it became upwardly mobile without doing much more than it did in its populist avatar. Within the last decade, high-end pen shops have moved from an occasional presence in Delhi’s five-star boutiques to high-rent markets where the elite come to spend a thousand rupees for a hundred grams of cheese. If the price of these pens makes you stagger, just remember that cheesy millionaires do not stagger easily.
Why have branded pens become such a hit with the Indian rich? Is it because the rich have shifted their primary loyalty from the goddess Lakshmi to the goddess Saraswati? Have they become so literary that, after a day rewriting balance sheets, they spend their evenings stringing pearls of wisdom in variable verse? Alas, not true. The wheeler has not turned into a dealer in poetic phrases.
The demand for pricey pens has multiplied because it has risen from the tarmac of legitimate need, lifted towards pocket-showoffs, and now rocketed into the stratosphere of ruling class affectation. It has become a most desirable gift for those in power because it comes attached with respectability. This is not considered a bribe, mind you. The most expensive pen in history would be inadequate as substitute for cash for a minister on closure of a deal. The pen, particularly one with contorted shapes on its head, is just right as a gesture towards the new royalty in return for an audience, even if the new royals use it only to scribble their initials. It is the kind of male jewellery that helps to keep a file moving. The movement may or may not be in the right direction, but why risk immobility in mid-journey?
Delhi’s corruption has a caste system, in addition to being creative. The most widespread form is lifestyle protection, or enhancement. A successful collection of Diwali hampers, for instance, could be sufficient to stock your bar through winter; and if you are influential enough, then Christmas will ensure a heady time till Holi; and Holi will keep you in high spirits till June. Monsoon may be the only time when you actually have to pay for anything spiritual. Pens and handmade watches are reserved for the heaven-born.
As happens so often, the pen-marketing chaps got the facts right and conclusions wrong. Identifying India as the market was totally correct; making Gandhi the icon was silly. The Indian who buys boutique pens dismisses Gandhi as a sermonizing bore with crackpot theories, the sort of hero safer dead than around, useful for street names but not for the boardroom or indeed the Cabinet. A pencil might be more appropriately named after Gandhi, preferably one sold in stub sizes.
A Nehru pen could have been a better idea, for Nehru was an extremely good author. Gandhi, on the other hand, was a great crusader-journalist. The Mahatma communicated through the journals he edited, and their names were as didactic as their content. Gandhi was also an inveterate scribbler; no politician has written more letters, quite often on scraps of paper, for he was the ultimate conservationist. On his days of silence, Gandhi conducted full conversations, and even crucial talks with Viceroys, by scribbling his part of the dialogue carefully on small bits of paper.
If the pen chaps had wanted to do themselves a favour, and lift the image of their brand with a dedication to the generation that gave us freedom, then they should have opted for Jawaharlal’s father Motilal Nehru. Motilal, a man with epicurean panache, a personification of honour in its widest sense, a patrician who entertained (before he became a Gandhian on the eve of the Khilafat movement) with a generosity that princes might match if they had both taste and money in addition to heritage. He may have never written a book, but he certainly pored over a brief; he was one of the great lawyers of his time. One can visualize the finest contemporary pens, not to mention quality ink, strewn across his handsome teak writing desk.
What would Gandhi have done if someone had gifted him a lakhpati pen? Laughed with toothless abandon, and immediately lost the gift.
(The Times of India Column : May 30, 2010)