"I am Joseph Lelyveld, who wrote the book on the secret sex life of Mahatma Gandhi."
With one sarcastic swoop, American journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld dismissed the controversy over his book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, early on in his talk organised by the Asia Society at Jnanapravaha, Fort, on Thursday.
Even before its release in India last year, there were attempts to ban the book because of its alleged insinuation that Gandhi shared a homosexual relationship with a German disciple.
But in his talk with city-based author Ranjit Hoskote, Lelyveld chose to speak of everything else that the book says as it attempts to understand Gandhi's intellectual growth as a leader.
"Gandhi was a more complicated and divided man than he seemed to be," said Lelyveld, who worked for several years as a journalist with and eventually editor of the New York Times.
"If there is a social conscience in India today, it can still be called Gandhian."
In South Africa, says Lelyveld, Gandhi identified deeply with the plight of Indian indentured labourers who had been brought on ships and were made to live like slaves.
When he returned to Bombay and was welcomed with parties, he pointedly told elite guests that he felt closer to the Indian labourers than to them.
"He grew more sensitive to his prosperous supporters later, but made his point sartorially by dressing up as a half-naked fakir."
Gandhi was most heroic, according to Lelyveld, in the last year of his life, which coincided with Independence and the violence waged between Hindus and Muslims after Partition.
"He had to come to terms with the tragedy that he had come so far and achieved so much, and yet his dream of having a new India with all his values was as far away as it had been before," says Lelyveld.