Anita Desai’s review has covered most of the principal aspects of Joseph Lelyveld’s new book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India. Charmy Harikrishnan’s op-ed in IE and Lydia Polgreen’s news report in NYT together have almost all the details on the controversial aspects of the book especially the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship.

As Desai reveals, Lelyveld himself is deeply sympathetic to Gandhi even as he lays out evidence that may lead an impartial observer to make more critical inferences. He rationalizes these actions in some cases and sidesteps them in a few. While not entirely persuasive, how much value one attaches to his judgments accounts for the sharply divergent book reviews. What is new is his attempts at appraising Gandhi’s legacy by actually visiting many of these places where he lived or struggled, reflecting on their present status and local people’s memories about these long gone events.

For a non-scholar like me, the book offered some interesting details of events I was already familiar with. For instance, I assume most of us (who, I suspect, have watched Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi) know of him being forcibly removed from the first class railway compartment at Pietermaritzburg when a white passenger objected to sharing space with a “coolie”. What Lelyveld tells us is the remaining part of that story – that Gandhi eventually got his way. His telegrams to the general manager of the railway and his sponsor in Durban raised enough commotion so that he was finally allowed to reboard the same train the next night under the stationmaster’s protection occupying a first-class birth.

A well-known hagiography of Gandhi often consulted by scholars was penned by Joseph Doke, a white Baptist preacher in Johannesburg who ascribed saintly qualities to his subject. Lelyveld reveals what is less well known – that Gandhi himself, likely in an active attempt at self-promotion, took over the marketing of the book. He purchased the entire first edition in London, distributed copies to MPs, had it shipped to India, later arranged for an Indian edition to be published by a friendly Madras editor and ran ads in his newspaper for years inviting mail orders.

Christian influence on Gandhi was quite a prominent feature of his life early on in South Africa. Lelyveld quoting an expert tells us that contrary to his later pronouncements that he never seriously contemplated conversion, it took about two years after his arrival to resolve that question in his own mind. He told the wife of a British lawyer that he was tremendously attracted to Christianity and thought of converting once but eventually came to the conclusion that there was nothing in its scriptures that was not to be found in Hinduism and to be a good Hindu also meant he would be a good Christian. As an aside, this Gandhian doctrine of syncretism, of course, became quite influential in Congress circles during the independence movement and thereafter as official policy in post-independent India finding many prominent Hindu supporters though it was largely rejected by the minorities.

Gandhi’s strong and unshakeable belief in Hindu-Muslim unity probably is owed to the fact that he was originally invited by Muslim traders to South Africa and Muslim patrons (Muslim merchants formed the bulk of the Gujarati mercantile class as Hindus did not travel across the “kala pani” owing to communal prejudices) played an important role in supporting his political activities early on (until his final march for the rights of indentured laborers when it was mostly withdrawn). The small size of the Indian community also meant that such unity was absolutely essential for any movement to succeed. Lelyveld notes that his first political speeches were delivered in South African mosques which he argues is of huge importance in his later refusal to countenance communal differences.

Just as Indians were disparagingly called “coolies”, the African natives were termed “kaffirs” (as we all know, the term coming from the Arab word for infidel was used on occasion by Muslims to describe Hindus there). Gandhi was offended by the first but routinely used the second clearly being oblivious to its racist connotation – it took him more than fifteen years to learn that fact – only distinguishing the “raw kaffir” from the “educated kaffir”. In 1904, during an outbreak of plague, he objected to Johannesburg’s Indian location being “chosen for dumping down all the Kaffirs of the town”. He declared, “About the mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly”. Again, reporting on his first prison experience in 1908, he wrote:

We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs…We could understand not being classed with the whites but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. It is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized – the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.

Yet, the same year, he also had good things to say about the common concerns of Natives and Indians and went so far as to speak of a “heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen”. Clearly, Gandhi’s views were still in flux and evolving.

Lelyveld examines closely Gandhi’s associations with John Dube, the first President of what later became the African National Congress and Isaiah Shembe, founder of the Nazareth Church, the largest movement of Zulu Christians with over two million adherents today – the three of them lived in rural Natal during the same period within an area of two square miles. He concludes that contrary to present beliefs that “their mission was one”, they virtually functioned separately but in parallel even if they had common interests. When conflict broke out between the Zulu rebels and the British authorities, Gandhi sided with the latter hoping (just as Jinnah later did) to curry favor with them in order to advance Indian interests. Not surprisingly, the Zulus resented this and the move forestalled any alliance – if at all such a prospect existed – between the two. Perhaps moved by the white brutality and Zulu suffering he saw, he confessed much later that his heart was with the Zulus but throughout his struggle in South Africa, he did not purposely make common cause with the blacks because “it would have endangered their cause”. Even as late as 1939, Gandhi dissented from Nehru’s view endorsing a common front of Indians and blacks only to reverse himself two years later.

Coming to the most controversial aspect of the book dealing with Gandhi’s sexuality, a lot has already been written about it. With regard to his relationship to Hermann Kallenbach, columnists such as Tridip Suhrud and Lelyveld himself have made much of the fact that the word ‘bisexual’ has not been used. Quite so. He concludes only that it can reasonably be said that it was “the most intimate, also ambiguous, relationship of his lifetime”. He quotes Tridip Suhrud saying they were a couple and a “respected Gandhi scholar” characterizing it as homoerotic rather than homosexual “intending through that choice of words a strong attraction, nothing more”. Kallenbach’s remarks that they had lived together “almost in the same bed”, Gandhi’s own references to Vaseline, his body being completely “taken possession of”, “slavery with a vengeance”, attempt to get Kallenbach to promise “not to contract any marriage tie during his absence” nor “look lustfully upon any woman” and their mutual pledge of “more love, yet more love…such love as they hope the world has not yet seen” all taken together would appear to leave open multiple possible interpretations with the imaginative reader free to fill in the missing details. In fact, Lelyveld himself says so:

…it’s Gandhi who provides the playful undertone that might be easily ascribed to a lover, especially if we ignore what else his letters contain and their broader context. Interpretation can go two ways here. We can indulge in speculation, or look more closely at what the two men actually say about their mutual efforts to repress sexual urges.

That caution is warranted as other evidence he cites also needs to be considered. Kallenbach wrote to his brother in 1908 shortly after moving in with Gandhi in which he talks of giving up meat and his sex life for the previous 18 months. The two also discussed foods that can stimulate (undesirably) the sexual appetite. Gandhi sent him a verse on non-attachment to bodily pleasures stating that we have bodies in order to learn self-control and also tried to convince him to renounce his profession and live in complete poverty. In total, it is plausible that there was some sexual attraction but nothing more but the evidence is insufficient to establish or refute any of the possibilities. “Ambiguous” could thus be an apt description.

Another aspect that has raised some hackles is where he discusses Gandhi’s brahmacharya “tests”. According to Lelyveld, it started in the late 1930s:

He’d have female attendants sleep on bedrolls laid out to the side of his; if he experienced tremors or shivers as he sometimes did, they would be expected to embrace him until the shaking stopped. Perfection would be achieved if the old man and the young woman wore the fewest possible garments, preferably none, and neither one felt the slightest sexual stirring. A perfect brahmachari, he later wrote in a letter, should be “capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they may be, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually aroused”. Such a man would be completely free from anger and malice.

As Sudheendra Kulkarni also wrote, Gandhi’s life was pretty much an open book and he made every effort to ensure that these activities were, like all others, conducted with equal degree of transparency. He was fairly obsessed with the question of sex and sexual desire and perceived a direct connection between the repression of sexual urges and socio-political activities be it service to Harijans, communal unity, khadi, cow-protection or village reconstruction. He wrote to a female co-worker about his experiencing “a sudden desire for intercourse” while recovering from a dental procedure and his organ remaining aroused despite his best efforts. He even discussed it in his weekly publication Harijan albeit in much less graphic terms.

In 1946, during his stay at Noakhali, he was able to persuade a 17-year old girl Manu who had tended to his wife earlier to join his entourage and serve him, among other things, in this role. This set off a storm in his inner circle with some quitting in protest after failing to convince him. Gandhi, letting go of his stenographer, told him he was at liberty to publish whatever wrong he saw in him and his surroundings. He also wrote to Nehru and Kripalani to explain his quest. Neither would sit in judgment on him.

With regard to Gandhi’s role in Indian politics, the book does not reveal much that is new. The departure of Jinnah from the Congress is mentioned in passing. His failed attempt to negotiate with Jinnah is covered very briefly. His interactions with Ambedkar are discussed in greater detail. His view of Nehru with whom he had well known differences in developmental philosophy is revealing. Lelyveld quotes Gandhi’s observation made in 1938:
“He says what is uppermost in his mind but he always does what I want. When I am gone, he will do what I am doing now. Then he will speak my language”. As we can now judge in hindsight, that turned out to be, to put it mildly, a misjudgment.

Lelyveld’s final conclusion is well said:

In India today, the term “Gandhian” is ultimately synonymous with social conscience; his example – of courage, persistence, identification with the poorest, striving for selflessness – still has a power to inspire, more so than even than his doctrines of non-violence and techniques of resistance, certainly more than his asserted dogmas and his pronouncements on subjects like spinning, diet and sex. It may not happen often but the inspiration is still there to be imbibed; and when it is, the results can still be called Gandhian, even though the man himself, that great soul, never liked or accepted the word.

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