Montblanc’s 25,000 dollar Gandhi pen stirs controversy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Erika Kinetz
Associated Press
MUMBAI, India (AP) ó An incongruous billboard has appeared high above Mumbai’s slums: A thin Mohandas Gandhi, the ascetic father of India’s independence, sits wrapped in simple white cloth above the image of a fat Montblanc pen.
German luxury penmaker Montblanc International GMBH launched a limited-edition commemorative fountain pen in honor of Gandhi this week, just in time for the 140th anniversary of the birth of the Mahatma ó or “Great Soul” ó on Friday.
The price? 17,000 euros ($24,763).
The decision to turn a man who shunned foreign-made products and pushed simple living to new extremes into a “brand ambassador” ó as one local Web site put it ó for a global luxury goods maker has left some Indians puzzled and others angry.
One group filed a lawsuit Thursday to try and halt distribution of the pen.
“Mahatma Gandhi advocated a simple lifestyle,” Dijo Kappen, who filed the suit and is managing trustee of the Center for Consumer Education in the southern state of Kerala, told the Associated Press. “He was, of course, a nationalist and, in the nature of the independence struggle, the only thing he promoted was Indian-made goods. It is a mockery of the great man and an insult to the nation … to use him as a poster-boy.”
Broadcaster NDTV asked: “Why are multimillion dollar conglomerates fascinated with the image of a man once called the Naked Fakir?” Fakir refers to a Hindu or Muslim religious mendicant.
A writer for India’s Mint newspaper peered at the image of Gandhi, bamboo stave in hand, which is engraved in the pen’s rhodium-plated nib and asked: “Where, really, was Gandhi in all this?”
Oliver Goessler, Montblanc’s regional director for India, Africa and the Middle East, says the answer is: Everywhere.
“Whatever brings Gandhi and his ideas back to mind can only be good,” he said by phone from Hamburg, Germany.
Just 241 commemorative fountain pens will be sold ó a nod to the number of miles Gandhi walked in his famous 1930 “salt march,” a mass protest against salt taxes levied by the British that dealt an early blow to their control over the subcontinent.
The pens are handmade, adorned with Gandhi’s signature and a saffron-colored opal. They come with an eight-meter (26-foot) golden thread that can be wound around the pen to invoke the spindle Gandhi used to weave plain cotton cloth each day. The pens also come with a commemorative booklet of inspiring Gandhi quotes.
“It’s not an opulent pen. It’s a writing instrument that’s very pure,” Goessler said.
Montblanc has 16 boutiques across India, but this is their first product targeted at India’s growing audience for luxury goods. Goessler said he didn’t have initial sales figures but demand for the pens in India has so far been “really spectacular.”
He said the idea to commemorate Bapu (“Father”), as Gandhi is affectionately known here, in a swish pen was born in India, not Europe.
But, he added: “The name of Mahatma Gandhi, you have to be careful how you use it. That’s why we linked it to two different charity initiatives.”
On Tuesday, Montblanc chief executive Lutz Bethge handed over a check for 100,000 euros ($145,666) to Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, for his foundation.
The foundation will get an additional 10,000 to 50,000 rupees ($210 to $1,050) for each pen sold, Goessler said.
Tushar said he did not get any money personally from Montblanc and his foundation would use the money to build a school and hostel for rescued child laborers.
He said he sees the pen as a commemoration, not an exploitation of his great-grandfather’s legacy.
Gandhi “would have been amused that such a lavish and ostentatious pen was being dedicated to him,” he said by phone from Amsterdam Friday, where he is attending a human rights conference. “He wouldn’t have possessed it.”
Montblanc gave Tushar a pen, but he said he’s been too shy to use it.
“I can’t bring myself to use it,” he said. “It’s too costly for me.”
Montblanc also took the unprecedented step of launching more affordable versions of the Gandhi pen.
“When we talk about Gandhi, there has to be an edition that’s more accessible,” Goessler said.
The cheaper line of 3,000 roller ball and fountain pens retails for 2,200 to 2,500 euros ($3,205 to $3,642).
Even that is stratospherically out of reach for the vast majority of Indians, many of whom have been left out of India’s economic boom. Over 450 million Indians struggle by on less than $1.25 a day.
Associated Press writer Anna Mathews in Kerala contributed to this report.