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Sleeping histories of public figures

The founder of the Soviet Union, the most charismatic American President of the 20th century, the architect of communist China, the man behind the holocaust, and India’s Father of the Nation. They changed the world. But did they change their partners too?

books Updated: Apr 03, 2011 01:07 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

The founder of the Soviet Union, the most charismatic American President of the 20th century, the architect of communist China, the man behind the holocaust, and India’s Father of the Nation. They changed the world. But did they change their partners too?

A controversial new book on Mahatma Gandhi by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, which some reviewers interpret as suggesting that he was bisexual, has triggered an uproar in India. But the book by Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times and the response it has generated has raised questions on why the sexual habits of historic figures continue to matter decades after their death. Is it just voyeurism?

Experts say the answer may lie in a complex cocktail of sociological and psychological reasons that determine our response to embarrassing details of the private lives of history’s most influential men. Dominant mainstream views — such as homophobia or the emphasis on fidelity — make sexual adventures seem deviant, causing the perception of a weakness in an otherwise powerful person, argues Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth in the capital. “Call it envy, or just the desire to know that the most powerful or influential people had normal human shortcomings too,” says Srivastava.

Lelyveld has argued that his book — Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India — tackles multiple facets of Gandhi’s life and does not call him bisexual or racist. But correspondence between Gandhi and his German bodybuilder-cum-architect friend Hermann Kallenbach — which some reviewers have claimed suggest an intimate relationship — have cornered most publicity for the book.

Gandhi isn’t alone. Books published decades after the deaths of Vladimir Lenin, John F Kennedy, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler that dissected their sex lives, also triggered outrage. These leaders, by appearing to breach moral and ethical guidelines that each society defines for the expression of sexuality, may be giving expression to broader desires, says psychologist Anand Prakash. “Real or imagined violations of these guidelines on the part of icons seen as infallible gives expression to collectively suppressed desires,” adds the head of the psychology department at Delhi University. “Our unlived part-lives can now be collectively expressed vicariously. It gives psychological empowerment and gratification to the common folk, thus explaining the strong appeal of such claims about national leaders.”

The halo of perceived power that surrounds leaders is also why their private lives continue to interest us. “We want to know whether the power these figures wielded in public life extended to their private life. Somewhere we expect it to. Part of the interest is drawn from our desire to know whether their power allows them to achieve what some refer to as sexual conquests,” says Srivastava.

The sexual habits and sexuality of influential people also need not be independent of their politics or larger world-view, says historian Vinay Lal. But in the case of Gandhi, it is critical to distinguish between sex and sexuality, adds the professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Following his vow of celibacy in 1906, Gandhi did not engage in traditional sexual relations, Lal said. “But I would say Gandhi remained a very sexual being. Sex was a finite game. You do it and get over. Sexuality remains an infinite pursuit,” he says. Lal points out that Gandhi himself wrote about his sexual experiences. “Many of these details are known because Gandhi talked about them. My mother would see Gandhi’s sexual experiments as a blot on a great personality who led India to Independence. I do not agree, but the fact that Gandhi’s experiments were unusual makes them a talking point even today,” Lal says. “Gandhi himself struggled with his sexuality.”

Increasing openness about sexuality in today’s society may also have contributed to the recent proliferation of such books. Jay Adams’s Gandhi: Naked Ambition, published last year, triggered similar controversy to Great Soul. Adams wrote about Gandhi’s relationship with his great-niece Manu. The most provocative sexual accounts of the lives of Lenin, Mao, Kennedy and Hitler, have also been penned over the past two decades.

Helen Rappaport’s 2010 book on Lenin claims he had a secret affair. Gunilla von Post, one of Kennedy’s mistresses, auctioned letters he wrote to her — also last year. German historian Lothar Machtan in his 2001 book Hitler’s Secret: The Double Life of a Dictator suggests Hitler was homosexual before he became the Fuhrer. The persecution of homosexuals under his regime was a possible cover for his own sexuality, he argues.

“Perhaps it’s because of the winds of globalisation that have swept the world, but it doesn’t matter as much if you’re a bad cook today. The success of your sex life matters more,” says Srivastava. And the sex lives of historical figures, it seems.