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Gandhigiri in the flesh

The Mahatma?s honesty about his attitude to sex is awe-inspiring for us hypocrites, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2006 04:21 IST

A fortnight ago, very close friends of mine became parents for the first time. Rather excited at the prospect of playing uncle at such close quarters, I told the proud father, “At last there is empirical confirmation that you are not a virgin!” Having a child, after all, is the only real public confirmation that one has had a sexual encounter. After much merriment at the hospital and back home, I returned to the subject of the sex act leading to the birth of a child. Except, rather morbidly, I thought about the actions that led to my own birth. Mental shutters rolled down and I forced myself to engage my mind beyond thinking about my parents in their youth — by reading Girja Kumar’s Brahmacharya: Gandhi & His Women Associates. Big, big mistake.

Girja Kumar is not one of those spunky contrarians who want to gather all their forces to go on an iconoclastic spree. This 81-year-old research scholar and former chief librarian of the Jawaharlal Nehru University library actually presents, in an extremely readable form, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s own ideas on man-woman relations. In other words, Mahatma Gandhi’s  ideas on sex.

Clearly, sex figured high in Gandhiji’s scheme of things. But reading psychoanalysts and post-Freudians about Gandhi’s obsession with brahmacharya as ‘displaced sexuality’ is one thing, and reading what Gandhi — Bapu! — himself had to say as if he’s hanging out with Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha of Sex and the City is quite another. No matter how many times one gossips and argues and titters about Gandhi’s ‘experiments with truth’, what takes one’s breath away is how “awe-inspiringly and fascinatingly frank”, in Girja Kumar’s words, “[Gandhi was] about his struggles to banish passion.” This man wasn’t embarrassed or inhibited about talking about sex.

In the Twenties, Gandhi started resting his hands on the shoulders of young women (“my walking sticks”) during his morning and evening walks. He also had young women perform elaborate daily massages. We are still in a territory that can be seen as ‘non-sexual’ — although, coming from the single-child, boys-only schooled, sexually repressed planet, I can’t. But then came the baths, taken in the presence of a woman who would be taking a bath at the same time. Gandhiji tells us that he would keep his eyes closed to avoid “embarrassment”. By the time we come to his ‘experiment’ of sleeping with women next to him, close to him or with him — that started, as Girja Kumar points out, as a “mere sleeping arrangement [that] became, over time, an exercise to obtain the nirvana state of perfect brahmacharya” — we could be in the Playboy mansion.

And all this is not conducted behind the purdah that divides the public and the private life that we Indians seem to be so proud of maintaining. Gandhi shared information of his ‘experiments’ and thoughts on sex (leading to strategies of banishing sex) with his close associates.

“Abha slept with me for hardly three nights. Kanchan slept one night only. Vina’s sleeping with me might be called an accident. All that can be said is that she slept close to me... What Abha and Kanchan told me was this: that she had no intention whatever of observing brahmacharya, but wished to enjoy the pleasure of sex... I have deliberately included Pra in the experiment. Maybe I should not. She often used to sleep with me to keep me warm even before I was conscious that I was making an experiment.” This is Gandhiji — Bapu! — in a letter dated September 10, 1928 (Collected Works of M.K. Gandhi, Vol. 37) to his associate Munnalal G. Shah that he knew would be public knowledge, not a sting operator’s exposé.

Gandhi’s brutal honesty about himself is disorienting for me, as I would think it is for a lot of other people. Considering that sex — even in its Gandhian form of proselytising the rejection of sex — is one of the subjects that Indians prefer to tackle only in a nudge-nudge wink-wink way, Gandhi’s courage in speaking freely about it is breathtaking. The story of the young Gandhi making love to his wife, Kasturba, while he should have been massaging his dying father in the next room, can explain his horror and guilt towards sex and sexual desire. But that still doesn’t take away the sheer chutzpah in the Mahatma’s utterings about lust.

And yet, somehow, while we re-invent Gandhi’s philosophy in the age of Rakhi Sawant and MMSs, even those who reject the Mahatma’s tirade against sexuality and champion a freer attitude towards sex in our censor-boarded society (of which I happen to be a card-carrying member) do not have even half the gumption that Gandhi had. Gandhiji’s ideas about sex fall
into that uncomfortable duffel bag where his other ‘loony’ notions — the evil of cities, the noxiousness of trains, the spiritual virtues of vegetarianism, the wrongness of inter-religious marriages, the necessity of caste — jostle about far from our ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, part-saint, part-towering hero of the freedom struggle.

But Gandhi saw no problem in welding ‘Gandhiji’ to ‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’. As C. Rajagopalachari observed in Ved Mehta’s Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles, “It is now said that he was born so holy that he had a natural bent for brahmacharya, but actually he was highly sexed... Everything he achieved was through extraordinary self-discipline and renunciation.” It is we, rather than Gandhi himself, who would rather not talk about the sexual urges of Gandhi and place all such matters in a locked trunk stowed away in the attic.

Casanova and Gandhi chose the same weaponry but fought for diametrically opposite causes. And yet, it is Gandhi’s ‘Catholic’ writ — sexual desire is something evil — that we officially accept even as we flout it, thankfully, with flourish.

Girja Kumar charts Gandhi’s associations with various women and the way he dealt with them. The prude in me — which takes up pretty much most of my existential space — is shocked to find that this Gandhi exists beyond the apocryphal stories of his enforced and ritualised trysts with celibacy.

What started as a joke about a child being the empirical proof of its father having had sex (there are other empirical proofs  for the mother) has turned into a re-look at my own squirming attitude towards matters sexual. But the thought of Gandhi being the father of four children has led me astray once again. It’s scary — not to mention gross  — enough to realise that I am the product of my father’s sexual action. Guess how scary it is to think about the sexual actions of the Father of the Nation.