ONE received with mixed feelings Union Minister for Law and Justice Veerapa Moily’s announcement that the Government of India had no reason to ban Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India since the author had clarified that he has not written what had been attributed to the book. While one is relieved that the Government has made its intentions clear before the irrational demand for banning the book over-shadowed other more important issues, the reason he gave is disturbing. Its implication is that the Government would have been justified in banning the book had it contained what was objected to by sections of society.
Great Souls generated a lot of controversy over its alleged comments regarding Gandhiji’s sexuality. The author says his work is not sensationalist and is based on material that is contained in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi published by Government of India and readily available in National Archives. Disturbed by incorrect interpretation of his book by reviewers, Lelyveld says he never wrote that Gandhi lived with a male lover and added, “I only said he lived with a man who was an architect as well as a body builder for nearly four years”. These references are from letters written by the Mahatma to Hermann Kallenbach – a German-Jewish architect and body builder. He, however, avers that what Gandhiji aspired to in his later life was a kind of sexlessness, something different from bisexuality – a word, he insists, he never used.
According to media reports emanating from London, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Lelyveld, who is a former Executive Editor of The New York Times, says in his book that Gandhiji destroyed what he described as Kallenbach’s “logical and charming love notes” to him in the belief that he was honouring his friend’s wish that they shouldn’t be seen by anyone else. However, the Architect saved all of Gandhiji’s letters. His descendants put these letters to auction decades after his and Gandhiji’s death. Thus, only Gandhiji’s letters survived and were later acquired by the National Archives of India and finally published. The book says, “It is Gandhi who provides the playful overtones that might easily be ascribed to a lover, especially if we ignore what the letter contains and their broader context. Interpretation goes two ways here. We can indulge in speculation or look more closely at what the two men say actually about their mutual efforts to repress sexual urge in this period”.
The book suggests that Gandhiji had a relationship of sorts with Kallenbach with whom he shared a room for two years. The author quotes a Gandhian scholar’s characterisation of the relationship as “clearly homoerotic” rather than homosexual, intending that choice of words to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more. The author, however, insists that conclusions passed on by word of mouth by the small Indian community in South Africa were sometimes less nuanced. “It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man”, comments the author in the book and quotes from one of Gandhi’s letters to his friend in which the Mahatma confesses, “How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” These letters are open to interpretations. The author says it is hard to believe that two men can be on loving and intimate terms without becoming “overtly sexual.” In one of these letters Gandhiji jokingly refers to himself as “Upper House” and Kallenbach as “Lower House”.
The complexity of Gandhiji’s sexuality has been a subject of animated debate for decades. He was for total transparency and never tried to hide his life behind the concept of privacy. His secretary Pyare Lal in his Mahatma Gandhi – the Last Phase, talks about total transparency in Gandhiji’s sexual life and narrates how the Mahatma used to have his massage practically naked with young girls often as masseurs. Similarly, while having hydropathatic treatment, he allowed not only men but also women to assist him. Gandhiji regarded secrecy a sin and for him there was no dividing line between public and private life. In The Story of My Experiments with Truth he writes, “Let hundreds like me perish but let truth prevail. Let us not reduce the standard of truth even by a hair’s breadth for judging mortals like myself”. Such was the standard, he set for himself.
Reference and interpretation of his sexual life can’t tarnish the image of the great man. Nor can such criticism undermine his role in the freedom struggle. Publisher of the Great Soul says the author sets out to measure Gandhiji’s accomplishments and traces the roots of his philosophy of reforms. “We see why he became known as Mahatma – Great Soul – but we also see clearly that he was unable to achieve all the goals he set for himself and his country, suffering bitter disappointment at this shortfall, most profoundly in 1947 when India was Partitioned. It is a penetrating analysis of the successes and failures of the Mahatma. In a newspaper article, Pranay Gupte describes Joseph Lelyveld as an author of veracity and intellectual integrity. There is no basis for blaming the author for any sinister motive or an attempt to denigrate Gandhiji. Why then demand a ban on a thoroughly researched work written with sincerity and objectivity?
Most of those demanding a ban are unlikely to have read the book. In fact, it is not yet available in the country. The entire controversy was triggered by a review published in Britain’s sensationalist tabloid Daily Mail. The review said the author claimed that Gandhiji was bi-sexual and deeply in love with Hermann Kallenbach. It also said Gandhiji made racial comments while he was imprisoned in South Africa. Rajmohan Gandhi and Tushar Gandhi, grandson and great-grandson of the Mahatma respectively dubbed the clamour for a ban on the book as “un-Gandhian”.
Irrational demands for banning books without reading them have, unfortunately, become a habit with us. Censorship is counter-productive. It was proved beyond a shadow of doubt during the hated Emergency during which even wild rumours were believed as Gospel truth. Same is true with films and books. The more you suppress, the higher the curiosity. We saw that with the James Laine book on the Hindu icon Shivaji. Traditionally, Hindu society has been open and has encouraged thinkers and philosophers to raise questions about fundamental issues pertaining to religion and society. Tolerating, even respecting, contrary viewpoints has been our ancient tradition. People’s anger can be understood if the intention were to malign an icon or to heap insults on deities and faiths. That is not the case so far as Great Soul is concerned. Hence censorship or ban is totally uncalled for and unjustified.