It turns out that I’ve called Joseph Lelyveld in his New York residence an hour earlier than scheduled. But Lelyveld is quite prepared. As he has been since his MK Gandhi biography Great Soul — to be released in India by HarperCollins India next week — became news when a British newspaper, courtesy an earlier review in an American newspaper, put the news out that the 74-year-old former New York Times foreign correspondent had suggested that Gandhi had a homosexual relationship with a friend in South Africa.
The Gandhi-Hermann Kallenbach matter being spent as a subject of debate, I asked him about the rest of his book — pretty much 425-odd pages in a 448-page book.
So did Lelyveld set out to write a book more about the development of the Mahatma rather than a biography of Gandhi? “I was posted in South Africa during the apartheid years and then, later in India. I became interested in the intellectual events that shaped Gandhi in South Africa and thought that if I followed the impulses in his career, his life, leading up to the Independence movement, I would be able to present a deeper understanding of the man.”
Lelyveld refers to VS Naipaul’s startling comment about Gandhi being “the least Indian of Indian leaders”. “He was bang on. Here we think of Nehru, the Fabian socialist, educated at Harrow and besotted with modernity being the ‘un-Indian’. But the Mahatma emerged out of South Africa via London.”
In other words, Gandhi was practically an NRI looking into his home country.
In Great Soul, Lelyveld quotes a telling passage from Gandhi’s autobiography where, at a session of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi is horrified by the precautions taken by high-caste Hindus from south India so that they can eat without being polluted by the sight of others. Gandhi was obviously looking with an outsider’s eyes.
But there are plenty that appears to us as Gandhi’s contradictions: his own early dealings with caste in India, race in South Africa and later the Independence movement itself. I hear Lelyveld let out a sigh over the phone when he says, “Gandhi says it himself during the run-up to August 15, 1947 that he’s a ‘spent bullet’, ‘a sinking ship’, ‘a back number’. I would say he was close to despair.”
Such facts, perhaps more than theories about his sexuality, are not part of the received narrative. A father of the nation despairing at the time the nation is being born? At the 1937 Congress, he demanded that the Indian National Congress be dissolved after Independence. “He believed that the Congress had simply started to pay lip service to its and his ideals,” says Lelyveld.
What about the contradictions, such as Gandhi ‘reprioritising’ his campaign against untouchability in favour of the Independence movement? “Gandhi saw himself as ‘a pianist, now emphasising one note and now [an]other’. This didn’t always go down well, but he carried such contradictions by his moral force.”
Lelyveld is clearly not an iconoclast with a mission to present a contrarian portrait of a man ossified as an icon. His purpose is something else: to present the development of Gandhi and his thoughts, enter rooms that have, for whatever reasons, a ‘do not disturb’ sign hanging.
“I think if there’s disappointment, it’s about how India has stuck to Gandhi’s ideas and principles. The disappointment maybe about how India has fared, rather than how Gandhi has.” As I put the phone down, I get a sense that I had just talked to a disaffected ‘Gandhian’.