Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Would Gandhi buy a "Gandhi" pen?

In the late Neil Postman’s prescient book “Technopoly,” he foresees the media-besotted day when there will be an advertisement for wine that includes an endorsement by Jesus Christ.

Postman envisions Jesus holding up a glass of California chardonnay and preaching, “When I transformed water into wine in Cana, this is what I had in mind. Try it today. You’ll become a Believer.”

Postman notes the idea isn’t that far-fetched. He cites a Hebrew National frankfurters' ad proclaiming that their product exceeds federal standards. The reason for the special care is in the ad’s tag line: “We have to answer to a Higher Authority.”

Thus, writes Postman, do media transform the sacred into the profane. Eventually, Postman warns, the profanity of pervasive advertising will consume all we hold sacred.

Postman's book came to mind last week when I came across a newspaper story about Montblanc, the maker of extravagantly priced, status-symbol pens and other knick-knacks for the super-rich.

It seems the firm has created a "Mohandas Gandhi edition" gold pen aimed at India's new wealthy elite.

Before continuing, recall that the ascetic Gandhi lived virtually possession free. He owned little more than an extra loincloth, sandals, a pocket watch, a rice bowl and his spectacles.

Montblanc is “commemorating” the great non-violent leader's 140th birthday with the pen.

Price: $24,763 per pen.

Happy birthday, Bapu.

The newspaper story reminds us that in India today “more than 450 million Indians struggle to get by on less than $1.25 a day.”

The good news for Montblanc is that India’s economy has produced enough multimillionaires in recent years to provide a market for the Swiss firm’s Gandhi pen, which is 18-karat solid gold and engraved with Gandhi’s image. It comes with a saffron-colored mandarin garnet on its clip and an impressing-sounding rhodium-plated nib.

But wait, there’s more. Only 241 pens will be sold. Why 241? Montblanc says it chose the number to honor the number of miles in Gandhi’s grueling “salt march.”

You have to figure that factoid alone is worth a grand or two of the pen's price. It's certain to enliven gin-and-tonic conversations on at least 241 palatial Indian verandas.

To soften the grotesqueness of invoking Gandhi's name to sell pens, Montblanc is giving the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation $145,666 plus $1000 for each pen sold. (By the way, I can't find any reference to the Gandhi pen on Montblanc's web site under "special editions." Perhaps that's because the company is being sued by a consumer education group.)

One wonders whether the donations to the family foundation are what led Gandhi’s grandson, Tushar Gandhi, to pitch the pens with his own endorsement. “I consider the Montblanc pen their acknowledgment of the greatness of Gandhi. They are doing it the only way they know how…. His writing instrument was his greatest tool.”

Whatever you say, Tushar.

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