Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Great Soul Controversy

Controversy has no parents. It can stem from anything. However, if it involves a person who is revered and celebrated, the controversy becomes juicier. For example, the ongoing controversy involving Mahatma Gandhi.

According to a section of book reviews published in western newspapers, the book ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India’ by Joseph Lelyveld (Knopf, 2011) , contains passages that claim that Mahatma Gandhi, when he was in South Africa, had a relationship with a male German national, and that he had left his wife to live with his ‘lover’ for almost two years.

After the controversy broke out, author of the book, Joseph Lelyveld, promptly denied such an inference in his writing. According to him, he had just presented the ‘facts’ he unearthed during his research; there is no mention of the word ‘bisexual’ in the book (Lelyveld was a journalist in South Africa and India for The New York Times, and is an expert on apartheid, who book on South Africa has won the Pulitzer Prize.). The presence of Hermann Kallenbach in Gandhi’s life during his time in South Africa is a fact, but that does not really mean that Gandhi was gay, bisexual, or whatever. (In that sense, Mr Lelyveld has enough credentials not to resort to cheap tricks to sell his book.)

This is the problem with controversies, with conspiracy theories. We get so emotionally involved with the inferences, the allegations, the accusations as facts that we fail to judiciously understand the real context. This is the fate that awaits ‘Great Soul’. In all likelihood, the book will be banned, at least in India, and no one will really bother to open the tome and go through the fateful passages that fuelled the controversy.

This is more or less what happened to Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ (1988), and James Lane’s ‘Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India’ (2004) (I remember, two days before the controversy erupted and Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was vandalised, a friend had shown me a copy of the book, holding it in front of me very dramatically, saying: “I got to hide this copy, it’s inflammatory stuff. I had asked, what was inflammatory. He had pointed to the subtitle of the book. You cannot become more polarised than this.)

I have no idea what the book actually says, and what does it mean. But I agree with Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud, who said in a Times of India report that the way men addressed each other in late 19th and early 20th century, with such terms of endearment, it is easy to infer them as lovers in today’s context. But, things were different then.

Our world has become polarised so much that we have devised names and labels for all our myriad emotions, activities, relations, and so on (Did you know there are people these days who identify themselves as ‘pansexuals’? Don’t ask me what it means.). Evidently, we have learnt to see everything from the ‘modern’ perspective. But if you read the personal correspondences of a man from the late 19th century, you must try and understand the writing from a point of view which is not your own, and which is not academic and post-modern. A difficult proposition indeed, especially when you write book reviews for prestigious publications.

I refer to the review published in the Wall Street Journal. Granted, Gandhi was no saint, he has his share of distracters. The WSJ review is one of them. In the beginning of the piece, the reviewer mentions Ambedkar as one of Gandhi’s distracters, then he goes on to discuss Gandhi in the same breath with Hitler (In the context that Gandhi wrote to Hitler, addressing him as friend.)

Writes Andrew Roberts: “Joseph Lelyveld has written a ­generally admiring book about ­Mohandas Gandhi, the man credited with leading India to independence from Britain in 1947. Yet "Great Soul" also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for ­mankind as a concept while actually ­despising people as individuals.”

Then Roberts comes to the controversy: “Yet as Mr. Lelyveld makes abundantly clear, Gandhi's organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908. "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom," he wrote to Kallenbach. "The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed." For some reason, cotton wool and Vaseline were "a constant reminder" of Kallenbach, which Mr. Lelyveld believes might relate to the enemas Gandhi gave himself, although there could be other, less generous, explanations.

“Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach about "how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance." Gandhi nicknamed himself "Upper House" and Kallenbach "Lower House," and he made Lower House promise not to "look lustfully upon any woman." The two then pledged "more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen."

“They were parted when Gandhi returned to India in 1914, since the German national could not get permission to travel to India during wartime—though Gandhi never gave up the dream of having him back, writing him in 1933 that "you are always before my mind's eye." Later, on his ashram, where even married "inmates" had to swear celibacy, Gandhi said: "I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women." You could even be thrown off the ashram for "excessive tickling." (Salt was also forbidden, because it "arouses the senses.")”

Note the phrase “Mr. Lelyveld makes abundantly clear.” More than reviewing the book, the WSJ review presents Gandhi as a man of contradictions (something that is in the agenda of the book as well.). There is nothing wrong in the approach, but to what end?

Here’s the million dollar question, what does it mean if we come to know some intimate, clandestine sexual details from the life of a man who is considered the father of the nation? In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles said, what’s the use of the truth, if the truth is of no help. In the current situation, considering what the reviews allege is true, how does it help us understand the man and his historical significance for India and the world? If it does not help in any way, can we just ignore the whole thing and move on?

Meanwhile, it would be interesting to observe in the coming days if the queer studies scholars and gay rights activists appropriate this revelation to further their cause. Now, that’s an interesting idea. In the context of queer studies and the theory of new historicism, scholars have always gone back and unearthed the alternative sexual identities of great men from history. Sigmund Freud wrote a book on the sexuality of Renaissance artist Michaelangelo. Later, the creator of David was appropriated as a gay man. Vikram Seth has a beautiful poem about the first Mughal Emperor, Babar’s love for a young man in his collection of poems, ‘The Humble Administrator’s Garden’ (1985).

Meanwhile, I remember Arthur Koestler’s ‘The Robot and the Lotus’ (1960), which was banned in India because it contained an article on Gandhi’s views on self-administered enema.

Come to think of it, the sex life of Gandhi, and his favourite, Jawaharlal Nehru as subjects of discussion, and dissection is nothing new. Sudhir Kakar wrote two book on the subject, ‘Intimate Relations’ and Mira and the Mahatma. Last year, Jad Adams published a book entitled ‘Gandhi: Naked Ambitions’ about his sexual experiments with women.

Meanwhile, the affair between Jawaharlala Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten has been a subject of gossip for years now, the latest being ‘Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire’ by Alex Von Tunzelmann.


The Wall Street Journal Review: Among the Hagiographers.

The New York Times Review: How Gandhi Became Gandhi.

The Times of India article: Outrage over reviews of new Gandhi book.

A review of anther Gandhi “sex” book, Gandhi: Naked Ambition by Jad Adams.

Naked Ambition: Is this the truth about sex life of Gandhi?

The following is the review of the book from Foreign Affairs

Not a biography -- Lelyveld says there are already more than enough -- this is a meditation on the interlinked puzzles of Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi's strange personal disciplines, the communalistic passions of the two societies where Gandhi worked (South Africa and India), his improbable achievements against vast odds, and the ultimate failure of his ideals. Here is an eccentric who achieved mass followings; a near-naked vegetarian and celibate who, by force of will, made masses of people temporarily abjure the primitive passion of communal enmity; and an icon who is worshiped globally while the hatreds he opposed flourish. Lelyveld, who worked in both South Africa and India as a New York Times reporter, focuses on Gandhi's opposition to race, class, and caste oppression in the two societies. He weaves a dense fabric of social analysis, biographical detail, and psychological speculation; zooms out for context and in for anecdotes; shifts between past and present tenses; and scrambles the chronology to find patterns across time. The book tries to recenter one's understanding of Gandhi away from the themes of Indian nationalism and nonviolent political action and toward the issue of social justice, which remains sorely unresolved in both countries where Gandhi worked.

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