Sex and scandal in the Gandhi archives – Shiv Visvanathan

Great Soul book coverControversies become Victorian when our minds are like corsets. The strain of the new is unbearable. Nothing illustrates this better than the debate around Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi titled Great Soul. Lelyveld’s strength lies both in his humility and his professionalism. He insists he is “a mere reporter” but he visualises a reporter as a modern storyteller, a troubadour for our times.

Lelyveld has written two books that concern us. The first, Move your shadow, is a report of apartheid in South Africa. It is an ethnographic study of segregation, of the metaphors, the language, the worldviews that go into the making of its surreal politics. It is a brilliant act of listening and reporting. I see Lelyveld’s Great Soul, a study of Gandhi, as a companion piece. South Africa is the experimental site for the Gandhi that emerged later. It is the pupal stage where a Gandhi in the making could be studied. This is precisely what Lelyveld does with clarity and openness.

The Lelyveld book has to be read twice. One has to read it for what he says and how he says it. Secondly it has to be read as a Rorschach, a projection of what Indians read into it.

M.K. Gandhi, Sonia Schlesin & Hermann KallenbachLelyveld’s chapter on Gandhi and Kallenbach contains a microcosm of the debate. The letters he has quoted are in the public domain. Anyone interested can read it in the ‘Collected Works’. Let us be clear about one thing. The antiseptic Gandhian of modern museums is a projection into the past. The Gandhi of history was an experimentalist; he experimented on himself. Each of his ashrams from Phoenix farm and Tolstoy house to Sevagram and Sabarmati were laboratories where ways of life were constructed and lived out. Central to this was the debate on the body and the question of language. Sex, cooking, work all became sites for a new “home science of the body”. Whether it was apartheid in South Africa or British colonialism, Gandhi constructed his response to them around the everyday subversiveness of the body. This Lelyveld understands and builds upon.

Gandhi’s sense of South Africa, his dialogic encounters were pivoted around three men, General Smuts whose goodness he took for granted but more particularly Henry Polak and Hermann Kallenbach. Polak was a theosophist and Gandhi’s initial forays into vegetarianism and other parts of the body were theosophist ventures around the body. Gandhi did not venture into the occult body of Anne Kingsford and Edward Maitland but he did engage with debates on food and medicine. To the theosophist idea of the body, we must add the more physicalist, masculinist body that emerged in the exercises of body building in folk legends like Eugene Sandow.

Gandhi was aware of the physical power of Sandow and the discipline that went into it. But Gandhi’s masculinity was of a different kind. As Lelyveld observes, the body he created as a fasting body of renunciation had a different notion of desire and fitness. Gandhi’s idea of the physicalist body of Sandow and its implicit sense of sensuality, sexuality and machismo came from his encounter with Hermann Kallenbach, an architect.

The chapter is a story of a friendship caught candidly in letters which are interesting in their sense of sexuality and language. What marks them is both the ethics of restraint and the aesthetics of a friendship. It is the idiom of friendship that becomes the source of controversies.

Wall Street Journal in a review claimed that Lelyveld had called Gandhi a bisexual. It is this comment that was picked up and circulated in India.

The Maharashtrian government enacting its experience with scholarship on Shivaji called for an immediate ban. This Sena-like syndrome is an illiterate response of populist groups which regard any interpretation of iconic figures beyond hagiography as taboo. Soon after, Chief Minister Narendra Modi not wanting to be left behind in the patriotic sweepstakes, called for a ban. Going one up, he called for a new legislation that made any act of insult to a national icon a criminal offence. Authoritarianism always emerges with a sugar coating of piety.

The media happy with self-righteousness quoted Wall Street Journal’s comment on bisexuality. The WSJ’s intelligence about stocks and shares obviously does not extend to the complexity of sex and sexuality.

When one reads the Kallenbach section what one senses is that Gandhi and Kallenbach had a deep sense of friendship, alive to the physicality of it but sensitive to the fact Gandhi was seeking to build it into a theory of renunciation. They enjoyed each other’s company, enjoyed the difference between their bodies. Kallenbach was a Prussian deeply aware of the legend of Sandow. Gandhi’s was an ascetic body open to desire and temptation but eventually searching Brahmacharya. The language is a revelation. It expresses the sensuality of touch, of male bonding, evokes the erotic in a platonic way. Their enjoyment of each other’s company is candid and open. There is nothing obscene about it but the metaphors they use may not be of the subtlest kind.

Gandhi describes the relation between Kallenbach and himself in bicameral terms, with Gandhi calling himself the upper house and Kallenbach the lower house. It was both a division of labour and an acknowledgement of reciprocity. There is no doubt the friendship was close. Gandhi lived for a year with Kallenbach away from Ba. And later Ba came and stayed with them.

This is a tale of friendship where the physicality, the comradeship is obvious. But I do not think it violates any taboo. One senses this, if one reads the letters with the biography of the man. It is a friendship proud of itself, but to say it was homosexual does not make sense. Lelyveld shows that an awareness of possibility is also an awareness of limits. A wonderful book about the Mahatma has been unfairly treated.

Joseph LelyveldThe Lelyveld controversy is a bit like all recent controversies. Sadly governance makes it a law and order problem where a ban or censorship is the kneejerk solution. There is also a failure of the intellect. This is a brilliant book about the least known period of Gandhi’s life — the growing up in South Africa. It is written with respect and openness. To not protest its ban would be cowardice. Gandhi thrived on controversies, especially his experiments around the body. To police that today would be authoritarian. We desperately need new studies on the history of the body. It is time to also publish the diaries of Gandhi, of 1947 and 1948. They are available but not yet public. Scholarship needs to be unbound and free to interpret events. This much we owe both Gandhi and Joseph Lelyveld. – The New Indian Express, Chennai, April 6, 2011

» Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist

See video

Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India has been banned by the states of Gujarat and Maharastra in April 2011. Biographer Lelyveld discusses the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi at the Asia Society in New York on April 7, 2011. For all videos click here.