It’s a material world

But must we fetishise all Gandhi memorabilia?

Written by The Indian Express | Published: February 27, 2009 2:32:20 am

Mahatma Gandhi’s sandals,a pair of metal-rimmed glasses,a pocket watch,and a bowl and plate are set to be auctioned in New York,amid some furore in India. Sections of Gandhi’s family and others have demanded the government do something,anything,to stop this “immoral” sale. Historical objects come under a “restricted list” category under foreign trade rules,which means only the government can import them,and special licences are cumbersome. In this case,the government is reportedly trying to get friends with money to snap up the items and entrust them to government safekeeping.

Like the 2007 purchase of Gandhi’s letters from a Christie’s auction,this could set a precedent,and encourage people to cash in on historic valuables instead of freely donating them. Visible desperation drives up the price,and the last thing we need is an unseemly haggling over the appropriate price point for Gandhi’s material possessions.

What’s more,why should the government acquire every last item ever touched by a historic figure? There is no compelling logic to locking away all traces of Gandhi in India alone — he is,after all,a world-historical figure. Does it really diminish us to have some of Gandhi’s belongings rest elsewhere? In India,the general public doesn’t need to fetishise his possessions — there is open access to his letters,and for those who need tangible stuff for that historic frisson,many of his belongings are on display in various Gandhi memorials. As with all truly monumental historic figures,each generation revivifies Gandhi’s image to suit their times. Instead of fixating on a few of his things and dropping 30,000 pounds on bringing them to India,it might make more sense to adopt a clear-eyed,secure attitude to our national past and heroes.

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