On Friday, Sotheby’s, the auction house despatched under the hammer an early 16th century copy of a manuscript of the Torah for a tidy sum of £ 252,000. The Torah happens to be the most important document in Judaism, revered as the inspired word of God and is probably being read right now in its original Hebrew by Dan Brown for his next motion picture tie-up starring an unrecognisable Tom Cruise. The manuscript, handed over in the 16th century by a Jewish family in Sana, modern Yemen, to another Yemenite Jewish family in Jerusalem and then bought in 1896 by British traveller-manuscript hunter A.E. Saffrin, is worth a great deal to those who can be called ‘The Jewish People’.
The Torah that was sold by Sotheby’s for the benefit of Westminster College, Cambridge, has been bought by an undisclosed buyer. But never during the run-up to the auction did we hear the State of Israel — with perhaps a vested interest to acquire the precious manuscript — plan any Operation Papertight. Nor did we hear of masked Mossad operatives landing up at the London auction house to pick up the precious item before it reached the hands of Kabbala-enthusiasts like Madonna. Even Jewish settlers in the West Bank were quiet. If the Israelis really, really wanted this early manuscript that contains Moses’ jottings of God’s word, they would have bid for it in the auction and bought it. For all you know, they have, through the medium of a sweet, old man resembling Ariel Sharon who had been sitting in the second row from last on Friday, acquired the codex.
On Tuesday, July 3, another precious item is scheduled to go under the hammer at the other auction house, Christie’s. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s January 11, 1948 draft of an article for Harijan. Apart from this 7-pager containing the Mahatma’s views on the Hindu treatment of Muslims in post-independent India and on the advantages of learning the Urdu script (“potential of Urdu for shorthand, and for the transcription of Sanskrit verses”), this is a precious document because it was written a mere 19 days before he was murdered.
The Albin Schram Collection of Autograph Letters includes the writings of other luminaries such as Goethe, Beethoven, Einstein, Baudelaire, Borges and Casanova. And much before the demand made to the Government of India to stop the latest sale of the Gandhi pages (Lot 0379) and the subsequent demonstrations by Gandhians, the writing had been auctioned in 1984 and then in 2002 (where the Austrian collector Schram bought it). In no previous occasion did the Government of India discuss any plan to buy the item.
But okay, making old mistakes doesn’t mean continuing to make new ones. So I would have thought that at the bidding price of £9,000-12,000 — less than what a Skoda Octavia RS 1.8 Turbo costs — someone from India House at Aldwych would hop across to Christie’s on King Street and keep raising his numbered card until the Mahatma’s writings were in the bag.
But the concept of valuing such items in terms of money seems scandalous to our patriots. Which could also explain why heritage sites and rare manuscripts don’t get the ‘comforts’ they need that money can buy. (Some years ago, the National Library in Calcutta simply dumped rare books and manuscripts because they were rotting inside its water-leaking vaults.) Instead, insinuations have been made that a la the Peacock Throne, Nataraja bronzes and the Kohinoor diamond, the Gandhi writings at Christie’s are also ‘stolen’ property and must be handed over by the rapacious West to atone for colonialism — and, while we’re at it, crony capitalism, etc.
It never occurred to the petitioners that maybe some patriotic-historically minded desi soul with money to spare could bid for the item fair and square. (Lakshmi Mittal’s Kensington house is not too far from the Christie’s office.) Instead, what has happened is this: the Government of India is still mumbling something about issuing a legal notice to the auction house for putting up the Mahatma’s writing on sale on the premise that all Gandhiana belongs to the Ahmedabad-based Navjiwan Trust; and the bidding price of the item must have skyrocketed because of all the attention.
So I’m hoping against hope that a sweet, old man in a light blue turban (the unofficial colour of GoI these days) will be the winning bidder and bring the precious item back to where it belongs: in a place that nobody will remember or bother to visit once it has reached ‘home’.
May the draft of this piece of writing that you’ve just read, on the other hand, go to the highest bidder. It’ll be on e-bay, along with Paris Hilton’s trash, two days from now. Meanwhile, can someone find out what happened to Rabindranath Tagore’s stolen Nobel Prize medal?
To cap it all
Himesh Reshammiya is a celebrity, so I can fully understand his desperate need for anonymity while visiting the Dargah at Moinuddin Chisti on Wednesday. If the burqa can work for Dawood Ibrahim, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t for India’s riposte to Bob Dylan. But the man apparently got busted while entering the shrine as he forgot to take off his trademark cap. He’s apologised since then and his just-released film, Aap Kaa Surroor has been accepted by the faithful thanks to the Sufi saint’s blessings.