London: Pulitzer prize-winning author
Jeseph Lelyveld, writer of a new book on Mahatma Gandhi that
has generated a controversy in India, says that his work is
"not sensationalist", and is based on material that is already
published and available in the National Archives of India
Lelyveld`s book, `Great soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his
struggle with India`, is not yet available in India, which
means much of the controversy has been generated based on a
review of the book published mainly in Britain`s tabloid
The review, published on 28 March, said the book
claimed that Gandhi was `bisexual` and was `deeply in love
with Hermann Kallenbach`, a Prussian architect and bodybuilder
who became Gandhi`s disciple in South Africa.
"This is not a sensationalist book. I did not say
Gandhi had a male lover. I said he lived with a man who was an
architect as well as a body builder for nearly four years. The
letters are part of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi
(volume 96, to be precise) published by the Government of
India. They are in the Indian National Archive. That
particular volume was first published in 1994. In other words,
the material I used contains no news," Lelyveld said.
Much of the controversy has arisen over the
conclusions in reviews about Gandhi`s sexuality based on
extracts of his letters published in the book. The extracts
from correspondence available in the NAI suggest a close
relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach, which has been
interpreted as bisexual or homosexual.
The Gujarat government has banned the book, while
Maharashtra government is planning to do the same.
Lelyveld has opposed the ban on his book, describing
the move as "shameful".
"In a country (India) that calls itself a democracy,
it is shameful to ban a book that no one has read, including
the people who are doing the banning," he said.
"They should at least make an effort to see the pages
that they think offend them before they take such an extreme
step. I find it very discouraging to think that India would so
limit discussion," he said.
In the book, Lelyveld writes that Gandhi destroyed
what he called Kallenbach`s "logical and charming love notes"
to him, in the belief that he was honoring his friend`s wish
that they should not be seen by anyone else.
He writes, "But the architect saved all of Gandhi`s,
and his descendants, decades after his death and Gandhi`s, put
them up for auction. Only then were the letters acquired by
the National Archives of India and, finally, published".
Lelyveld adds, "One respected Gandhi scholar
characterized the relationship as `clearly homoerotic` rather
than homosexual, intending through that choice of words to
describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more. The
conclusions passed on by word of mouth by South Africa`s small
Indian community were sometimes less nuanced. It was no secret
then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone
to live with a man".
The writer notes that only Gandhi`s letters to
Kallenbach have survived.
He further says, "So it`s Gandhi who provides the playful
overtones that might easily be ascribed to a lover, especially
if we ignore what else the 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
urged in this period".
The book reveals the influence Gandhi had on
Kallenbach. In a 1908 letter, Kallenbach writes to his brother
Simon, "For the last two years I have given up meat eating;
for the last year I also did not touch fish anymore and for
the last 18 months I have given up my sex life. I have changed
my daily life in order to simplify it".
Lelyveld says, "Later it is Kallenbach who points
out to Gandhi the insidious tendency milk has to enhance
In the book, publisher Knopf says that Lelyveld "sets
out to measure Gandhi`s accomplishments as a politician and an
advocate for the downtrodden against Gandhi`s own expectations
and in light of his complex, conflicted feelings about his
place in Indian history".
The publisher adds, "Lelyveld traces the roots of
Gandhi`s philosophy of reform to South Africa, exploring in
unmatched depth the campaigns for social justice he undertook
there, and chronicling his continued efforts when he returned
to India. 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".