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« Mob Attack in Mazar Sharif | Main | FDA's remorse: too little, too late? »

April 02, 2011


Astute analysis and reading between the lines, Sujatha. I guess Lelyveld took a similar approach of putting out the contents of the correspondence between Gandhi and Kallenbach and left readers to come to their own conclusion regarding the relationship. I don't think the facts (or fiction) warrant banning the book - always a bad idea, more people will read it or at the very least, dig on the internet. After all, there is much published reporting about Gandhi's "experiment" with abstinence which involved bare bodied young women and no-one seems to raise a hue and cry any more. Different people view the motivation for that too in different ways.

Another revered Indian's romantic life too has been scrutinized at length. Much has been written and debated about Tagore's emotional attachments to various talented women although no one that I know of, has hinted at any sexual liaisons. Those relations too were scrutinized by Tagore devotees in the light of copious epistolary exchanges with his admirers. Indira Gandhi's father, Nehru was thought to have harbored romantic notions about artist Amrita Sher-gil and is rumored to have had an actual affair with Lady Mountbatten. I guess in the case of Gandhi, as reported by Lelyveld, the matter is particularly objectionable to many Indians because of a possible suggestion of homosexuality. But in a generation or so, this too shall pass.

The personal lives and foibles of well known people are often controversial. Should they, as you rightly point out, color their public achievements as long as no crime was involved?

I think the problem lies in the human tendency to prefer clean myths over murky real-life tales. It was a much simpler time when people could say "He was a great man", without any 'But' or 'If' attached. People get angry when their dearest beliefs and assumptions are queried in any manner, and will continue to believe in those, even when the truth is staring them in the face.They will always continue to try and justify their belief, though some may reach a certain breaking point.
I'm not surprised at the stories about Tagore, which seem quite in line with so many of his works and poetry- it is impossible to imagine that only a wife would have been the sole target of all those outpourings, especially since the wife died at the relatively young age of 29. Tagore lived to be 80+.
I guess Nehru and Tagore, being widowed fairly early on, might have been given 'a pass', on liaisons known or unknown, especially in their later years. Gandhi was held to higher standards, his wife was still living for most of their married life, so the myth-makers had to insist upon his fidelity to her from age 13-75.

Take another of India's founding fathers, Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose's sexual development (and political and spiritual development) had much to do with coming to terms with the mother figure, the cult of the Mother. The Indian women in his life he ended up idealizing. He placed them on a pedestal. He made of them mythic figures. Is it any wonder, then, that he would ultimately seek a romantic union with a woman a continent away, an Austrian Catholic woman, someone who inhabited a world beyond the boundaries of his political or spiritual yearnings? His romantic choices were very much a part of his quest to liberate India. Public and private, it seems to me, are inextricably linked in this case. Perhaps in the case of Gandhi, too?

Sudip, I wasn't aware of the details of Emilie Schenkl's marriage to Subhas Chandra Bose, till you pointed it out and I looked it up. So, there too was an attempt to preserve a myth of Bose not having 'married' outside the country, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Interesting, indeed. I can't comment on his romantic choices and idealization of the Indian women in his life, knowing little about those- I'm afraid my impressions of his life were, as is very often the case with my generation and demographic, based on the sketchy account in the Amar Chitra Katha comic. I have not read any substantive biography about him yet:( a shortfall which I hope to remedy in the future.
You make a good point regarding the public and private lives being inextricably linked.It becomes harder for Gandhian disciples to reconcile their concept of Gandhi as a Mahatma on a pedestal with the reality of his being a human being with his own follies and foibles. Perhaps that would account for a lot of the vehemence with which cudgels are being figuratively wielded to defend beloved Bapu.
It does raise a lot of interesting questions regarding how other contemporaries might have truly regarded him in those times, maybe even explaining some famous antipathies.

Sujatha: you're absolutely right--the myth that Bose never married persists among Indians today (as if his marriage to a Western woman would somehow dilute his stature, or his importance to the Indian independence movement). There are those who still believe that Bose's marriage was nothing more than a rumor, and that his daughter, Anita, had tried to insinuate herself into Indian society--with false credentials, so to speak. Anyway, there is a biography of Bose coming out, by Sugata Bose, a Harvard professor and great-nephew of Subhas Bose's (the book is out in May from Harvard Univ. Press). And an independent scholar named Romain Hayes is coming out with a book focused on Bose's controversial activities in Nazi Germany; that volume will be out a bit later than Sugata Bose's book, to be published by Columbia University Press.

Your point about Gandhi--that the disciples will happily ignore any personal failings--applies to Bose, as well. Here was
a man committed to nothing else but the liberation of his country, a learned man, a man of vigor, an astute politician, a man of great courage. And yet, he lived in wartime Berlin, met with Hitler, Himmler, Ribentropp, and others, lived in a lavish house with a butler and a cook, supported the Axis powers uncompromisingly--all the while the Jews were being sent to die. One can, I think, revere Bose's revolutionary role while still condemning his dubious moral and ethical choices. Doesn't have to be all or nothing, right?

Sudip, thanks for the biography suggestions, I will keep an eye out for their release. 'All or nothing' requires some ability to appreciate shades of grey, which is not that easily come by in a population that has been used to simplified narratives and stereotypes, though. They might easily fall into the fallacy of 'If he wasn't Good, he must have been Bad'.

Bose of course, famously disagreed with Gandhi regarding the proper way to resist British imperialism. He subsequently disassociated from Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. After Bose was elected by a majority vote to the post of the president of the INC, Gandhi threatened to withdraw his support of the organization. Bose got the message and went his own way and formed the INA - the Indian National Army better known as the Azad Hind Fauz.

Sudip is writing a review of Sugata Bose's biography of Subhas Bose (submission due tomorrow:-). I hope he will share it with us.

Sujatha, very interesting. I think that myths are supposed to tell a clean story so that the core message is front and center. Hopefully, the core message is consistent with the overall life and accomplishments of the hero.

I am not bothered by the fact that heroes will have a semi-hidden side to their sexual lives, or that they experimented in their early years, or entertained doubts, or were inconsistent over the years. So what! It is a trite saying, but, nobody is perfect - not even our heroes.

I am not so sure that the passage of time gives us a better understanding of the individual (maybe it does,) as much as to record the endurance of the accomplishments. In the case of an American hero, founding father and slave owner Thomas Jefferson, the passage of time has yielded a picture more complex than clear. Pope John Paul II was a man of deep faith and great personal courage. The Catholic Church is on its way to an eventual canonization of JP2 as a saint. Yet, he was clueless about the nature of clergy sex abuse among his fellow priests.

A few decades ago a silly, salacious, and tell all biography was published on the life of the great conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein. Telling all of his life would take several tell all books. The reviewer of this book, in the NY times, ended by saying that never had a book been so utterly dwarfed by its subject. Who knows? In time, Gandhi may dwarf the critics, their teasing details, and the shocking revelations that he was a human being like the rest of us.

@ Ruchira: Regarding the 'rumored' affair between Lady Mountbatten and Nehru, I read, years ago, that Lord Mountbatten wrote that he and his wife spent their time in India "...jumping in and out of other people's beds."

@ anyone: what was the nature of the estrangement between Gandhi and his children?

'So what' would have been the perfect response for India to all the clamor over Lelyveld's conclusions, rather than a knee-jerk banning or attempt to ban the book. While the picture is now more complex, it is perversely, more clear, in that no human needs to be perfect to be called great. If we set ourselves to expect that kind of perfection, we should be expected, in due time, to be sadly disappointed that the idol now has feet of clay.
If you are very interested in Gandhi's children and what was their relationship with their father, try this linkl
Or you could read assorted letters from the online archive here. Gandhi was not a fond father or loving husband, despite devoting several hours to caring for Kasturba, on the occasion of her many bouts of illness.


Thanks for the links.

There are heroes. There are our heroes. When we claim a hero as our own (not just someone whom we admire or hold in high esteem,) we may not appreciate the obligation we place upon ourselves. When our hero is wounded on the battle field, we face a life altering decision. Do we take the sword from the hand of our general, rally the forces, and then lead the attack anew? I do not know what I would do.

If it was a real battlefield, the conditioning of several months or years as a well-trained soldier would kick in. The next higher-up takes the sword, rallies the forces/issues calls for retreat, but it is now his/her judgement that is supreme. If the soldiers aren't well-trained, chaos and slaughter ensues. As for Gandhism in the present day India, I think its state is more akin to the volunteer army that meets biannually to hold pretty reenactments than a well-honed, hard-in-training eager bootcampers. The reactions are pretty predictable. Everyone will make noises about the outrage, but it will be hot air and little else, as the afterglow of the cricket World Cup victory fades. That will overpower this issue.

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