New biography hinting Gandhi as racist and pervert creates resentment

A new biography on M. K. Gandhi ,  Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, authored by Mr. Lelyveld  is creating controversy.  The book is published by Knopf Publishing Group. The author was once a New York Times correspondent in India and South Africa and later the newspaper’s executive editor.  The book provides details of some aspects of life of Gandhi hinting that he was bisexual and racist.

The Wall Street Journal review of the book said it recast Gandhi as “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent, a fanatical faddist, implacably racist, and a ceaseless self-promoter, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.”

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. 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.”

Kallenbach was born in Germany but emigrated to South Africa where he became a wealthy architect.  Gandhi was working there and Kallenbach became one of his closest disciples. The pair lived together for two years in a house Kallenbach built in South Africa and pledged to give one another ‘more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.’

At the age of 13 Gandhi had been married to 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji, but after four children together they split in 1908 so he could be with Kallenbach, the book says.

At one point he wrote to the German: ‘Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.’ Although it is not clear why, Gandhi wrote that vaseline and cotton wool were a ‘constant reminder’ of Kallenbach. He nicknamed himself ‘Upper House’ and his lover ‘Lower House’ and he vowed to make Kallenbach promise not to ‘look lustfully upon any woman’. They were separated in 1914 when Gandhi went back to India – Kallenbach was not allowed into India because of the First World War, after which they stayed in touch by letter. 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’.

It details how even in his 70s he regularly slept with his 17-year-old great niece Manu and and other women but tried to not to become sexually excited. He once told a woman: ‘Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience.’ The biography also details one instance in which he forced 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.’

In another startling revelation, the book claims he held racist views against South African blacks.  “We were marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs,” he is quoted as saying during a visit to the country. “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 uncivilised.”

A close reading of letters between Gandhi and his German friend Hermann Kallenbach reveals that the reviewers of Joseph Lelyveld’s book went overboard with their interpretation of the father of the nation being a bisexual. The letters are steeped in late 19th-early 20th century style of overflowing English.

Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi said, “It’s very difficult a western oriented person, especially British and American authors to understand that there can be relationships that have no sexual connotation.”

Indian Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily on Tuesday said the Centre was planning to ban the controversial book by Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of The New York Times Joseph Lelyveld that has quoted correspondence to suggest Mahatma Gandhi was bisexual.  Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi too urged the Central government to ban the book.  “The apostle of truth, peace and non-violence has been represented in a perverted manner. I urge the Central government to ban its (book’s) sale and publication,’” Modi told reporters in Gandhinagar.

“This is the most un-Gandhian thing to do,” said Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, reacting to the Maharashtra government’s “knee-jerk” reaction to propose a ban on a new biography of Gandhi, The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India.  “I will definitely take legal opinion on this. This culture of banning and burning has to be opposed. Bapu never accepted this kind of state censorship. He never shut out his critics. Instead he welcomed them to a public debate,” said Tushar, adding that this was probably the first instance of a book being banned based on its reviews.