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Fodder of the nation

So the liquor baron gets the granny glasses. India’s izzat has been restored and kingfishers are gently flapping their wings all along the banks of the Sabarmati river in joy, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2009 22:09 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

So the liquor baron gets the granny glasses. India’s izzat has been restored and kingfishers are gently flapping their wings all along the banks of the Sabarmati river in joy while residents of Bapu Ashram have uncorked their bottles of bubbly lassi and are wildly engaged in non-violent party games.

In the trans-Atlantic property dispute involving the sole offspring of the Father of the nation (the Government of India), the offspring’s many baton-wielding chamchas (us, with the national media goading us along by breaking into ‘Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram...’ during every commercial break), and the mysterious peacenik James Otis (who till late Thursday night possessed the goodies of Gandhi glasses, slippers, bowl and blood report), I got to see everything that there was to be seen about pop nationalism, auction action and cheesy self-righteousness.

Vijay Mallya playing hero of the hour by conjuring up $1.8 million to bring home the Gandhi Goodies© — gawd, all we need now is another television channel campaign urging our Mammi-Papa government to bring back Netaji Subhas Bose’s ashes from the Renkoji temple in Japan to quench Indian pride.

My only question is: if we Indians wanted the Gandhi stuff to be here in India so badly, why did we ask the government to get it for us? After all, unlike say the Kohinoor diamond and most of the Indian artefacts scattered across various museums around the world, these Gandhi Goodies© weren’t stolen property that left an unholy imperialist-hegemonic ooze-trail across continents and time. This was a square and fair deal in which the owner of the Gandhi Goodies© had decided to sell them to the highest bidder.

The Zenith pocket watch and the bowl used by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi were both gifted by the man to his grand-niece in the 1940s. She had passed these items on to her adopted daughter and somewhere down the line, it came to be possessed by Otis the Peacelover. No burglaries, no customs rackets, no Tomb Raider sequences, no RSS hanky-panky that we know of.

The lacquered sandals were gifted to a British officer in 1931. As for the granny glasses, Gandhi gifted this pair to the Nawab of Junagadh in the 30s. All over the charkha. All legit.

So why couldn’t one of us, so keen to vacuum-suck every Gandhi item scattered across the globe, raise his hand and make a bid at the Antiquorum auction on Tuesday night in New York?

I’ll tell you why. Because despite all the hoo-ha about Indians being able to afford every bull dropping on Wall Street and every Michelin star in the constellation these days, the thought of putting a tag on Mahatmic things make us feel as if we’re selling our mother (or, in this case, buying our father).

The problem is that Indians are generally great barterers, top-notch traders. Money for commodities with exchangeable value is easy-peasy. Paying for something that needs to be injected with value — whether it be of the sentimental kind or, as in art, the aesthetic variety — we’re still quite moronic at it. We may make a hell of a lot of great things. But we’re clueless about branding them.

Thus the collective head-scratching when a painting is bought (or sold) for millions. Er, we ask ourselves, all that money for a wall hanging with a swiggle saying ‘Souza’ in the corner?

But the way exams are still the least worst way of finding out who’s the smart guy and who’s the duffer, money too is still the best reckoner of how things are valued.

Thus, the mountain-pile they pay for a Damien Hirst dead animal in a tank. Thus the Himalayan range we are willing to spend building weapons systems even if they don’t see the light of day. (Sorry, Mr Otis the Peacelover. You demanded the government cut its military expense and plough that money into healthcare for our poor in exchange of the Gandhi Goodies©. India may negotiate with terrorists, but it doesn’t negotiate with collectors.)

In the end, all this hulabaloo perhaps served one purpose: to push up the price of the Gandhi Goodies©. If someone — even the the chauffeur of India’s Consul General in New York would have done — had just quietly sat and bid for the bundle, maybe the price would have not even hit the reserve price of $ 30,000, never mind the $ 1.8 million it finally went for. But no, we had to out-Tushar Tushar Gandhi and push the Government of India into the game, didn’t we?

In the end, legendary patriot Vijay Mallya turned out to be our knight in shining armour. Let Rajghat resound with the immortal bhajan, ‘Ooh la la la la-ley oh!’ every October 1. Let a Kingfisher calendar adorn every courtroom and government office wall.

In the meantime, let Ambika Soni not get unduly perturbed if she hears a voice across the phone line say in the next few weeks, “So, how much to have Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize medal back, eh?"

First Published: Mar 07, 2009 22:05 IST