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Human, all too human

Exploring outside the received narrative, this engaging book uses documentary evidence to paint a vibrant portrait of Gandhi. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2011 01:36 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India
Joseph Lelyveld
knopf (e-book)
Kindle price Rs 729 ($16.80)

‘Though I love and almost adore Andrews so, I would not change you for him. You still remain the dearest and nearest to me and so far as my non-selfish nature is concerned I know that in my lonely journey through the world you will be the last (if even that) to say goodbye to me... What right had I to expect so much from you.’

This letter, dated February 27, 1914, written by a 44-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Cape Town, South Africa, appears on page 165 of The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings. The first time I had read the lines, I automatically thought that Gandhi’s intimate letter referring to the English cleric CF Andrews was to his wife Kasturba. Much later, I looked up the endnotes provided by editor and compiler Gopalkrishna Gandhi and found it to be a “Letter to Hermann Kallenbach”.

This week, thanks to an all-too-predictable ruckus created by those scrambling over each other in yet another bid to ‘defend’ Mahatma Gandhi against perceived or real ‘slanderers’, I came across the name Hermann Kallenbach again, this time courtesy Joseph Lelyveld’s fascinating biography of Gandhi, Great Soul.

Lelyveld’s book is yet to be published in India, and going by the noises being made, may not be available at all. But the e-book version on my Kindle has managed to bypass the baying mobs and frightened booksellers. In any case, it would be very tricky to ban the words of Gandhi himself.

The ‘problem’, as we all know by now, is Lelyveld’s use of documentary evidence and informed opinion to point to the relationship that Gandhi had developed with a Prussian architect whom the Indian playfully boasted as “having received physical training at the hands of [Eugen] Sandow [the father of modern bodybuilding]”. Lelyveld’s inquiry includes quotes from a letter sent by Gandhi to Kallenbach from London in 1909: “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed... [The purpose of which] is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”

He also quotes cultural historian Tridip Suhrud who says Gandhi and Kallenbach “were a couple”. The author pursues the matter: “...but what kind of couple were they?” adding that “one respected Gandhi scholar characterised the relationship as ‘clearly homoerotic’ rather than homosexual, intending through that choice of words to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more.”

Lest we think that Lelyveld’s sole purpose is to provide lipsmacking iconoclastic titillation, it would be wise to read Rajmohan Gandhi’s Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire where he writes: “Why a Kathiawari Bania and a German Jew should find each other in Johannesburg, and receive from the other what each needed, is one of the marvels of our story.” Lelyveld has pursued this ‘marvel’ of the Gandhi story. He takes a few wrong turns here and there. For instance when, carried away by his unstated thesis, he theorises that the cotton wool and vaseline that serves Gandhi as “a constant reminder” (Gandhi’s words) of Kallenbach in his London hotel, “may have to do with enemas” or may “foreshadow the geriatric Gandhi’s enthusiasm for massage” (Lelyveld’s words). But as a Gandhi scholar tells me, the cotton and vaseline referred to were for Kallenbach’s daily shaves, about which he was very fussy before he met Gandhi.

But interesting as the Kallenbach story is to the pursuit of understanding Gandhi — inarguably the most powerful embodiment of ‘politics is personal’ in modern history — there are far more fascinating, intriguing and important matters that Lelyveld explores in his quest to find out what led to the making of a future Mahatma. In ‘Among Zulus’, the author effectively points out the contradictions in the young Gandhi’s mind of being shocked by the word ‘coolie’ being used as a synonym for ‘Indian’ and his own use of the racially charged term ‘kaffir’ for South African Blacks. "It is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells [from Blacks]. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals," writes Gandhi in a 1908 report from prison. Whether Gandhi was a man of his age and culture in his racial stereotyping of South African Blacks or whether he was playing out a political strategy in his campaign to free Indian indentured labourers by separating the issue from anti-Black racist policies is a question that Lelyveld asks us to ponder over.Friends indeed: (from left) Gandhi, his secretary Sonia Schlesin and his friend Hermann Kallenbach, 1913, Durban

In a similar manner, the author reminds us of the buried question about Gandhi’s sincerity to removing untouchability. Lelyveld cites Swami Shraddhanand, whose views were “more uncompromising in his abhorrence of untouchability” and who challenged Gandhi’s commitment to the movement. “It’s not part of the received narrative,” writes Lelyveld.

Great Soul weaves the unreceived narratives with the received one, and in the process presents to the reader a more complete picture of a complex, undoubtedly great man. The book reads like a bildungsroman, charting the psychological, moral and political growth of an extraordinary young man who would become an extraordinary great one. For that alone, Lelyveld’s finely written book deserves to be read.