"I didn't allege Gandhi was racist or bisexual"

Updated Mar 29, 2011 at 02:32pm IST

New Delhi: The author of a new book on the life of Mahatma Gandhi angrily dismissed claims that he alleged Gandhi left his wife for a gay lover or was a racist despite upholding the cause of the downtrodden all his life.
'Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India' is written by a former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, who makes shocking claims about Gandhi and his conflicting personal ideologies on racism, political faddism and sexual perversion.
The international daily 'Wall Street Journal' on Monday published a review of the contentious book, quoting passages that pointed at the duality in Gandhi's life in his profession of love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.

The author's reaction followed outrage in Indian media and followers of the man whom many consider as the architect of a successful civil disobedience campaign against the British Raj.
Lelyveld said his book had been misinterpreted by the press.

He said the word "bisexual" appears nowhere in the book and the word "racist" is used once to describe comments by Gandhi during his stay in South Africa."

The British Daily Mail reported "Gandhi 'left his wife to live with a male lover' new book claims", while the Daily Telegraph said he had "held racist views against South African blacks."

Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi was quoted by the 'Mail Today' daily as saying "these western writers have a morbid fascination for Gandhi's sexuality. It only helps them sell their books. It is always open season with Gandhi."

The book claims the love of Gandhi's life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908. He wrote to Kallenbach: "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom".

"The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed." Cotton wool and Vaseline were "a constant reminder" of Kallenbach, which Lelyveld believes might relate to the enemas Gandhi gave himself, although there could be other, less generous, explanations.

Gandhi also wrote to Kallenbach about "how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance." He 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. According to Lelyveld Gandhi wrote to him in 1933 saying "you are always before my mind's eye."

In his Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, even married "inmates" had to swear celibacy. Gandhi said of sexual intercourse: "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 forbidden, because it "arouses the senses."

Lelyveld writes, when Gandhi was in his 70s and close to leading India to independence, he encouraged his 17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her "nightly cuddles" with him. He reportedly sacked several loyal members of his personal entourage who might disapprove of this part of his exercise in self discipline. He told a woman on one occasion: "Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience."

Gandhi's political faddism

Lelyveld writes: "For all his lifelong campaign for Swaraj ("self-rule"), India could have achieved it many years earlier if Gandhi had not continually abandoned his civil-disobedience campaigns just as they were beginning to be successful.

With 300 million Indians ruled over by 0.1 per cent of that number of Britons, the subcontinent could have ended the Raj with barely a shrug if it had been politically united. Yet Gandhi's uncanny ability to irritate and frustrate the leader of India's 90 million Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (whom he called "a maniac"), wrecked any hope of early independence.

He equally alienated BR Ambedkar, who spoke for the country's 55 million untouchables (the lowest caste of Hindus, whose very touch was thought to defile the four higher classes), the author said. He said Gandhi suspended his efforts no fewer than three times between 1900 and 1922, leaving in the lurch more than 15,000 supporters who had gone to jail for the cause.

According to Lelyveld, Gandhi insisted that journalists file "not the words that had actually come from his mouth but a version he authorized after his sometimes heavy editing of the transcripts."

Was Gandhi a racist?

Lelyveld claimed Gandhi was implacably racist toward the blacks of South Africa despite his lifelong commitment towards eradicating untouchability and class divisions. "We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs," Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there.
"We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized, the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals," the author said.

UK's 'Daily Mail' and 'The Telegraph' were among publications that quoted passages from the book that claimed "as late as 1933 he wrote a letter telling of his unending desire and branding his ex-wife "the most venomous woman I have met".

The biography details an instance in which he forced his niece Manu to walk through a part of the jungle where sexual assaults had in the past taken place just to fetch a pumice stone for him he liked to use to clean his feet. She returned with tears in her eyes but Gandhi just "cackled" and said: "If some ruffian had carried you off and you had met your death courageously, my heart would have danced with joy."

Though the bulk of the book is in praise of Gandhi's principles, the new revelations on his sexuality and political views is likely to raise the hackles of followers who credit him with providing direction to a billion people in times of conflict.

Scholars have always been in argument over Gandhi's political role but the new claims about his sexuality and his views towards South Africa's blacks will likely drive a greater wedge between those who consider him the greatest icon of humanity.

However, the book is not all about Gandhi's sexual abhorrence in later life or his political dilemma. Lelyveld writes a sympathetic but critical account of Gandhi's politics while painting a vivid portrait of his charismatic strangeness.

The author writes of Gandhi's success in seizing India's imagination and shaping its independence struggle as a mass movement, his recognition late in life that few of his followers paid more than lip service to his ambitious goals of social justice for the country’s minorities, outcasts, and rural poor.

Lelyveld shows in vivid detail how Gandhi's sense of mission, social values, and philosophy of nonviolent resistance were shaped on another subcontinent - during two decades in South Africa - and then tested by an India that quickly learned to revere him as a Mahatma, or "Great Soul," while following him only a small part of the way to the social transformation he envisioned.

Lelyveld leads his readers step-by-step through the heroic - and tragic - last months of the selfless leader's long campaign when his nonviolent efforts culminated in the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing that ended only with his own assassination.

India and its politicians were ready to place Gandhi on a pedestal as "Father of the Nation" but were less inclined to embrace his teachings. Muslim support, crucial in his rise to leadership, soon waned, and the oppressed untouchables - for whom Gandhi spoke to Hindus as a whole - produced their own leaders.

What reviewers said

According to the Publishers Weekly, Lelyveld's unexpected perspective on Gandhi, focuses more on his failures and vexations than triumphs. Gandhi dreamed of Hindu-Muslim solidarity in a united, autonomous India (a hope dashed with the 1947 partition that split off Pakistan); acceptance of lower castes by upper-caste Hindus (still only partially accomplished); an economy built around cottage industries in self-sufficient villages (a quixotic fantasy).

This program proved far more difficult than evicting the British and earned the Mahatma hatred - and, finally, assassination - in an India riven by sectarian animosity and caste prejudice, the Publisher's Weekly said in its review.

Gandhi's makeover from business-suited, English-educated upper-caste lawyer to loincloth-clad sage; his odd diet and abhorrence of sex; his strained family life is captured by Lelyveld in an evenhanded account that relates the failure of Gandhi's politics of saintliness while attesting to its enduring power.

In his book, Lelyveld also claims Gandhi ¬advised the Czechs and Jews to adopt nonviolence toward the Nazis, saying that "a single Jew standing up and ¬refusing to bow to Hitler's decrees" might be enough "to melt Hitler's heart."

Starting a letter to Adolf Hitler with the words "My friend," Gandhi egotistically asked: "Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?" He advised the Jews of Palestine to "rely on the goodwill of the Arabs" and wait for a Jewish state "till Arab opinion is ripe for it."

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