The sanctification of a human being is a slow process, taking months or even years to accomplish. It begins with careful wordings and rewordings of the early life stories, followed by more scholarly but carefully culled compedia as the years and paper trails grow in number and intricacy. The end point is inevitably the post-mortem, momentously uttered and universally acknowledged, "He was a Great Soul, indeed". Hushed silences accompany any future invocation of the now sanctified leader. Howls and resistance meet any attempt to move away from this paradigm, even decades or centuries later. While the eyes farthest from the events may see the clearest, this clearer vision is not always welcome, especially to those who are now ensconced in their comfortable positions by benefitting from the original premise.
I had thought that the new biography of Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld, alluded to in my 'From Crushed to Whole" post was no more than one such examination of the myth of Gandhi, using it as a segue into my own book review of a memoir/biography from the Dalit community in India. But events have taken the book "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India" into a limelight of its own.
There is a growing clamor in India to have the book banned, and one state government, Gujarat, where Gandhi was born, has already done so. Author Joseph Lelyveld, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, has been accused of insinuating that Gandhi was bisexual and involved with one of his close friends and acolytes Hermann Kallenbach starting from days dating back to his stint as a lawyer in South Africa.
Lelyveld pushes back against his critics, insisting, while carefully choosing his exact words :
"It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual. It does not say that he was a racist. The word bisexual never appears in the book and the word racist only appears once in a very limited context; relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set attitudes or history in South Africa. I didn't say these things, So I can hardly defend them."
Lelyveld adds, "It is a responsible book, it is a sensitive book, it is a book that is admiring of Gandhi and his struggle for social justice in India and it's been turned into as if it is some kind of sensationalist pot boiler. It is not."
But things are not as simple as they seem, and the publishers and author are perhaps banking on the fact that the book is yet to be widely available and read. But the chapters in question have been very carefully formulated indeed. Here is a relevant excerpt (from books.google.com preview):
"If not infatuated, Gandhi was clearly drawn to the architect. In a letter from London in 1909, he writes: "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom." Cotton wool and Vaseline, he then says, "are a constant reminder." The point, he goes on, "is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance." What are we to make of the word "possession" or the reference to petroleum jelly, then as now a salve with many commonplace uses? The most plausible guesses are that the Vaseline in the London hotel room may have to do with enemas, to which he regularly resorted, or may in some other way foreshadown the geriatric Gandhi's enthusiasm for massage, which would become a widely known part of the daily routine in his Indian ashrams, arousing gossip that has never quite died down, once it became clear that he mostly relied on the women in his entourage for its administration."
More appears to be implied in this passage from the next page, where Lelyveld explains a mock-serious contract drawn by Gandhi to refer to himself as the Upper House and Kallenbach as the Lower House.
"In the agreement dated July 29, 1911, on the even of a trip Kallenbach is about to make to Europe, Upper House makes Lower House promise "not to contract any marriage tie during his absence" nor "look lustfully upon any woman." The two Houses then mutually pledge "more love, and yet more love...such love as they hope the world has not yet seen."
Of course, all this could just be overwrought prose between close friends, not unusual for that era, where Indian men might write stiff, rigidly formal letters to their wives and more-at-ease,intimate and flowing ones to their male comrades. Many of those still exist in this archive, and have no improper suggestions of the nature that Lelyveld has uncovered in the letters he quotes above, which are not in the open archive, and must have been acquired from some other source. However, what is remarkable about the letters in the open archive, is how frequently he wrote to Kallenbach, in comparison with the lesser frequency to his relations, and his constant complaints in those letters about 'Mrs. Gandhi' being in ill-health or ill-humor of some sort or the other. There is something fishy about the tenor of the complaints that Gandhi makes about his wife to his friend. Also of note, there are no letters existing that were written by Kallenbach to Gandhi, the latter having destroyed them, from all accounts.
Despite all the careful tiptoeing around the subject that Lelyveld has tried, it is fairly obvious what he is hinting at, without saying anything outright. Whether Gandhi was bisexual, or not, hasn't and shouldn't have any bearing on the final evaluation of his life and works. In fact, it places in proper perspective all the weird practices and obsessions that characterised his later years as the attempts of a conflicted soul rather than a crazy old man.
Rather than dealing with 'unpleasant issues' by banning their expression, 'Satyagraha' or insistence on the truth should be the order of the day. Then, without any disrespect to a Mahatma, truth shall, indeed, have prevailed.
*Satyagraha, a compound word from the Sanskrit 'Satya' meaning truth and 'Agraha' meaning "persistent desire or wish to grasp"
'Satyameva jayate' is the official motto of the Indian government, meaning "Only truth will prevail".