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The Marketing Of The Mahatma

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Worldwide recession?

This holiday season, Montblanc is selling a Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition fountain pen. It's crafted out of 18-karat gold, topped with a saffron-colored opal, and comes with a 26-foot golden thread to wind around the pen, in tribute to the 26 feet of simple cotton cloth the Mahatma spun by hand every day.

Only 241 such pens will be made — the number of miles Gandhi marched to the sea to protest the British salt tax. The point is etched with an image of the Mahatma marching in his peasant's loincloth.

A nice woman at a Montblanc shop in Chicago this week let me give it a test-write while she told me that it cost $33,000. I'm glad my shaking hand didn't break the gold point. Some Web sites sell the pen at a small discount. But if you have to buy a pen like that at discount, you can't afford it.

Montblanc has paid Tushar Gandhi, a great-grandson of the Mahatma, $150,000 so it can say a man named Gandhi has agreed to put the The Great Soul's name on the pen.

Mahatma Gandhi has about 50 estimated living descendants. I'm not surprised that you can find at least one Gandhi to endorse this pen — but especially Tushar Gandhi. A few years ago, he tried to reach a deal with CMG Marketing and Events to use his great-grandfather's image in a credit card ad.

Imagine: using a historical figure who went on hunger strikes to promote a credit card you can use to charge meals at four-star restaurants. What's the Hindi word for chutzpah?

Tushar Gandhi says the money will go to a foundation for childhood education, and each pen sold may earn the foundation as much as $1,000.

Now those who revere Mahatma Gandhi should probably restrain ourselves from knee-jerk disdain for this pen.

The Mahatma was a champion of the poor. But he was not an enemy of the rich. He was a practical man who befriended many of India's wealthiest businessmen, to support his work against colonialism and caste discrimination. In fact, when Gandhi was assassinated, he was living, as frugally as he could, in a mansion owned by the industrialist G.D. Birla.

But I'd like to suggest another gift item that might honor the Mahatma's life.

Mahatma Gandhi famously wrote with pencils. He used them down to the nub, to show that everything, from the simplest implements to human lives, should be used to the fullest.

Why not a Gandhi pencil? Make it in saffron yellow. Have artisans in the bustees of Calcutta or Mumbai etch the Mahatma's name along the side. Wind it with a cotton thread. Limit production to 241 pencils, to uphold snob appeal, and sell that pencil for $25,000 — all of which would go to the kind of causes for which Gandhi lived and died.

If just 10 people buy one of those pencils, it will earn more money for those good works than if all of Montblanc's production run sells out. And any smudges on your fingers from a pencil like that would be a real status symbol.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small