x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The elusive Mahatma: try to find a picture of Gandhi in India

After encountering countless pictures of the UAE's central figures, our correspondent is baffled by her inability to buy a picture of Gandhi in India.

I can't find Gandhi. The father of the Indian nation. The freedom fighter. The icon of non-violence. No matter how much I have searched for the past three years, I cannot find a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. It started out as an innocent trek in Goa in the winter of 2007 when I was visiting a friend. It was her idea. Actually, she wanted one. So I took it upon myself to pick one up from one of the many street vendors that line the narrow streets of Goa.

No luck. A few weeks later in Mumbai, we visited the ultimate destination of shopping for anything authentically Indian - the Central Cottage Industries Emporium. It is government-run and everything is sourced from small-town craftsmen and weavers from around the country. Prices are subsidised so you don't have to haggle. I figured they'd proudly carry a picture of him. Nope. Last year (and the year before), untold numbers of trips to India turned into an obsession. Big towns or small, no one could tell me where to find one.

My friend likes Gandhi a lot. She believes in Gandhian principles (although I suspect not so much the non-violence bit; she may be slight but she can chop you down with a few master-strokes of self-defence). All she ever wanted was to hang a portrait of him in her home. I've seen innumerable paintings hung in expensive galleries (even in Dubai). If I could afford it, I would have bought her the exorbitantly priced one where his portrait is splashed in blood.

In daily life, he seems ubiquitous. His face is on postage stamps. He graces Indian currency notes. Pretty much every Indian city has named a street or square after him, alongside where they have placed a half-size bust or a full-sized statue, usually of him leaning on his cane. Sometimes his dusty, framed photograph hangs on the walls of government offices, and school principals like to make a virtuous example of him.

But approach a stationery store, or one that sells school supplies and ask for him, and they look at you like you've asked them for the impossible. Instead, they offer you books on him. A simple picture? Completely lacking. When my friend and I were in Delhi last year, we contemplated visiting the Gandhi museum, but were told that, unlike most museums, the Mani Bhavan does not have a gift shop that dispenses such trivialities. For the better, I suppose.