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Bapu and friends

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi certainly needs to be viewed with a fresh pair of eyes. The latest controversy over Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul provides a new opportunity for introspection. Girja Kumar writes.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2011 12:49 IST

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi certainly needs to be viewed with a fresh pair of eyes. The latest controversy over Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul provides a new opportunity for introspection. Gandhi’s collected works, a treasure trove of information, are largely unread and the importance of the 21 years he spent in South Africa remains underrated by an overwhelming number of Indians. And yet South Africa provided him the intellectual companionship that shaped him, and a camaraderie that he missed after he returned to India in 1915. He yearned for “the sense of security” and wrote on June 2, 1919: “Strange as it may appear, I feel lonelier here [in India] than in South Africa… I do not know the people here, nor, they me.”

Imagine a gathering of the Prussian architect Hermann Kallenbach, the British lawyer and his wife, Henry and Millie Polak, and Gandhi’s Russian secretary Sonja Schlesin, all old comrades, sitting together cross-legged with the Mahatma on the floor at Sevagram Ashram reminiscing their South Africa days. In the words of Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal, “They [Gandhi’s friends] in South Africa were all hoping to return to him in the evening of his life and range themselves around a common hearth like children of a family after a long and arduous separation.”

In a confession to his former loyal and formidable secretary Sonja Schlesin, Gandhi said on June 2, 1919, “I have no [Rev JJ] Doke here. I have no Kallenbach, [Henry] Polak is in England.”0 This was five years after he had returned to India from South Africa. At the marriage of Henry and Millie Polak, Gandhi was the best man. Schlesin was a sprightly young girl of 17 years when she came to work as his secretary, while Kallenbach became an ardent companion.

There are more than 200 letters from Gandhi to Kallenbach on record. “Love and more love” is the running theme of their association. They used to address each other affectionately by nicknames in their correspondence. While Kallenbach was the ‘Lower House’, Gandhi signed his letters to his Prussian friend as ‘Upper House’. Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach was a male bonding of a special kind, a platonic relationship with a difference. There is no reason to read more into his letters to Kallenbach, his partner in spirit. He wrote to him, “I am not with you in body but I am always with you in spirit” (April 5, 1909).

His “extraordinary love” for his companion is expressed as “our mutual attachment” in another letter. Gandhi tells Kallenbach to hold his breath “because the expression of love is an indication of our having lived before in bodies other than the present ones”.

What has raised eyebrows after the publication of the news of Lelyveld’s book is centred around Gandhi’s letter to his friend about him keeping Kallenbach’s portrait on his mantelpiece in his London bedroom. In the same communique, he has no hesitation in admitting “how completely you have taken possession of my body”. He refers to the clause in their agreement of June 1910, whereby Gandhi was to live in the same place as Kallenbach.

There is a thin line dividing attachment, devotion, sensual longing, spiritual desire and physical love. The fact, however, is that Gandhi had taken a vow of complete brahmacharya — celibacy — earlier in 1906. There is no reason for us to suspect that he sought to break his vow or broke his vow subsequently.

But Gandhi did end up letting go of his companions and comrades in South Africa after his return to India. Schlesin lived in a state of penury for the rest of her life. Polak, a “chhota bhai” to him, had begun to drift apart even when Gandhi was still living in South Africa. In the end, Polak was left complaining about the undue influence exercised by Jawaharlal Nehru over Gandhi. Millie Polak had followed Gandhi to India and spent two miserable years with her two children as Gandhi had no time for her. Kallenbach was equally overlooked except when the Prussian visited India briefly in 1937.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Kallenbach, Schlesin, the Polaks and his friends in South Africa were responsible in helping to lay the foundation of the phenomenon that would become the Mahatma. They deserve to be remembered by us with gratitude.

(Girja Kumar is the author of Brahmacharya: Gandhi and His Women Associates. His forthcoming book The Indus People is about pre-1947 Pakistan.)

*The views expressed by the author are personal.