Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Holding a Torch to a Great Man

The Kochi-based Arvind Kumar Pai has one of the largest collections of Mahatma Gandhi stamps in the country. He talks about his passion

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

One sunny Saturday afternoon, several years ago, Arvind Kumar Pai was at home, at Cherthala, Kerala, when he saw the postman dropping some letters inside the post box at the gate. Since the box was at a lower height, the boy ran out of the house and collected the letters.

On one envelope, there was an orange stamp with the face of a bald man with round spectacles. “I was immediately gripped by the image,” he says. “Today, I cannot explain why I got so fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi.”

Ever since, he has been collecting stamps of Gandhi. He followed the method of all children: tear the side of the envelope which had the stamp, place it in a mug of water, to weaken the glue. Then he would put the stamp out to dry in the sunlight, and put it inside an exercise book. “My father would encourage me in my hobby,” says Arvind.

Today, at 30, Arvind, a professional trainer, has more than 10,000 stamps in his collection. In late 2014, he was given an award by the Asia Book of Records for having the largest collection. They include first-day covers, setanant (series of four) and ordinary stamps from India and abroad.

Not many people know that America, in 1961, was the first foreign country to bring out a stamp on Mahatma Gandhi. It is a 4 cent stamp, in orange, with an image of Mahatma Gandhi inside a circle.

The words, when read clockwise, went like this: Apostle of Non-Violence/1869/Mahatma Gandhi/1948. At the top are the words, 'Champion of Liberty'. Arvind got this from a philatelist in Thiruvananthapuram. “Most of the stamps that I get from abroad have been sent by friends,” he says. “All of them know about my passion.”

So, he has stamps from Mauritius, Ghana, Turkmenistan, Bhutan, Madagascar, Zambia, Belgium, South Africa and Costa Rica.

The Costa Rica stamp was brought out in 1998, the 50th death anniversary of the Mahatma. The stamp fittingly costs 50 Colones. (Colone is the country’s currency). Interestingly, the South African stamp features a young Gandhi, in a lawyer’s suit. Gandhi went to South Africa in his early twenties and worked as a barrister for many years.

In 2009, the United Nations declared Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, as the International Day for Non Violence,” says Arvind. “They also released a stamp, which I have in my collection.”

But Arvind is not taking it easy. To increase his collection, he regularly attends philately exhibitions in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Thrissur, Chennai and Bangalore.

The price for a Gandhi stamp depends on the year it came out,” says Arvind. “A Rs 10 stamp, which was released in 1948, has an asking price between Rs 30,000 and 60,000 today. For some people, stamp-collecting is only a way of making money and not a passion, like it is for me.”

Not surprisingly, Arvind idolises Gandhi. “Gandhi has never died,” he says. “He lives on in the currency notes, statues, photos and stamps. He is India itself. His vision was to make India self-sufficient. I am very happy that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come up with the ‘Make in India’ idea. But that was originally a Gandhian concept. And Gandhi has always said that we should love and respect each other. These are values which we desperately need in our country.”

To propagate the principles of Gandhi, Arvind holds exhibitions regularly. The last one was on October 2, 2015, at a school in Thuravoor.  

A wide variety of people came,” says Arvind. “But what was a surprise were the presence of a large number of political science and history teachers from schools and colleges. Since they teach Gandhi in their syllabus, they were keen to know more.”

There were many youngsters too. “They asked me a lot of questions about Gandhi,” says Arvind. “Like, how is Gandhi relevant for them? Also, why do I collect only Gandhi stamps? In the end, the exhibition was a learning experience for them. They became aware of what a great man Mahatma Gandhi was and remains so.” 

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