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Before the storm: Lelyveld on Gandhi

with 2 comments

Joseph Lelyveld’s book ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India’, has been banned in Gujarat and Maharashtra on the basis of media reports of book reviews in newspapers. Here are two book reviews and two comments.

The first, a fairly measured assessment of the book, is by Hari Kunzru in New York Times:

Few figures seem more remote from contemporary India than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, or “Great Soul,” who spearheaded the struggle for independence. Gandhi’s beloved rural poor figure only intermittently in the consciousness of a country now focused on call centers, software entrepreneurs and movie stars. In the cities the Gandhian ideals of service, self-denial and universal uplift have been drowned out by the aggressive nationalism and shiny consumer culture of India’s urban boom.

Joseph Lelyveld

In this context, Joseph Lelyveld’s judicious and thoughtful new book, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India,” seems almost eccentric, devoted as it is to explaining the evolution of a social and moral philosophy that, 60 years after the end of the British Raj, has lost the attention of the nation it once enthralled.

Mr. Lelyveld (once a New York Times correspondent in India and South Africa and later the newspaper’s executive editor) teases out the forces that transformed a sheltered young Gujurati Hindu lawyer from a conservative merchant caste into the Mahatma, a figure part politician and part saint, who renewed the ancient tradition of Hindu asceticism in the hope not just of political independence, but also of a social and spiritual transformation based in the Indian villages.

Gandhi soon became a spokesman for the Indian business elite of Natal Province in South Africa, lobbying against a system of discriminatory legislation which was rapidly evolving toward full-blown apartheid. Despite his later claims, Gandhi did not immediately champion the rights of indentured laborers, the underclass of mainly low-caste South Indians who had been transported to labor in mines and on plantations in conditions of semi-slavery. He was also yet to become the staunch anti-imperialist of later years. Hoping to gain concessions from the British colonial authorities, he organized an Indian stretcher battalion to serve in the Boer War, and in an ignoble episode in 1906 assisted (also as the leader of a corps of stretcher-bearers) in the brutal suppression of a Zulu uprising.

Throughout Gandhi’s time in South Africa there is no sign of any attempt to make common cause with the black majority. Imprisoned with Zulu convicts, he reported un-self-consciously that “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.”

Gandhi has been the subject of at least 30 full-length biographies in English alone. To American readers who may know only the basic outlines of his life, “Great Soul” will come as a revelation. Divided equally between Gandhi’s years in South Africa and his return to India as the fully fledged Mahatma, the book scrupulously avoids sensationalism, which is for the best, given that even readers in India, more familiar with the idea of Gandhi as a complex figure, will still find the portrait of a troubled, changeable, wily and occasionally egotistical politician challenging.

While Gandhi’s political rivalries and his shortcomings as a husband and father have been publicly debated, Mr. Lelyveld’s frank discussion of Gandhi’s erotically charged friendship with the German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach is likely to ruffle feathers, especially in a country where homosexual activity was a criminal offense until 2009.

Gandhi left his wife to live at Kallenbach’s house in Johannesburg for a period, and Kallenbach donated to Gandhi the 1,100 acres that became their communal Tolstoy Farm in 1910. As Mr. Lelyveld notes, “in an age when the concept of Platonic love gains little credence,” the romantic tone of their letters (including pet names) is likely to be read as indication of a straightforward homosexual intimacy.

Yet it is also clear in Mr. Lelyveld’s account that Gandhi’s celibacy was a profound and deeply felt position. His vow of brahmacharya, or self-imposed celibacy, taken in 1906, was to become the foundation of his moral authority in the eyes of the Indian masses. Nearing 70, he had a wet dream. The “degrading, dirty, torturing experience” was shattering, he wrote. It “made me feel as if I was hurled by God from an imaginary paradise where I had no right to be in my uncleanliness.”

As Mr. Lelyveld tracks Gandhi’s life, it becomes clear that any attempt to understand Gandhi as some kind of contemporary liberal humanist avant la lettre is off the mark. He was a disciplined religious ascetic. To a degree unmatched by any modern leader of comparable stature, Gandhi’s politics were played out through his body.

Where he ate, what he ate, who cooked it — all were properly political questions for a leader trying to maintain shaky unity between Hindus and Muslims, while engaged in a battle against the caste system, which was one of the foundations of Hindu belief. By voluntarily performing actions considered polluting or degrading, like collecting human waste and living with untouchables, Gandhi earned the right to offer new definitions of what was uplifting and purifying — definitions that were both spiritual and political.

Mr. Lelyveld has restored human depth to the Mahatma, the plaster saint, allowing his flawed human readers to feel a little closer to his lofty ideals of nonviolence and universal brotherhood.

Compare that with the review in Wall Street Journal by Andrew Roberts, which is less a review of the book than of Gandhi:

In August 1942, with the Japanese at the gates of India, having captured most of Burma, Gandhi initiated a ­campaign designed to hinder the war effort and force the British to “Quit ­India.” Had the genocidal Tokyo regime captured northeastern India, as it ­almost certainly would have succeeded in doing without British troops to halt it, the results for the Indian population would have been catastrophic. No fewer than 17% of Filipinos perished under Japanese occupation, and there is no reason to suppose that Indians would have fared any better. Fortunately, the British viceroy, Lord Wavell, simply imprisoned Gandhi and 60,000 of his followers and got on with the business of fighting the Japanese.

Gandhi claimed that there was “an exact parallel” between the British ­Empire and the Third Reich, yet while the British imprisoned him in luxury in the Aga Khan’s palace for 21 months ­until the Japanese tide had receded in 1944, Hitler stated that he would simply have had Gandhi and his supporters shot. (Gandhi and Mussolini got on well when they met in December 1931, with the Great Soul praising the Duce’s “service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about a coordination between Capital and ­Labour, his passionate love for his people.”) During his 21 years in South Africa (1893-1914), Gandhi had not opposed the Boer War or the Zulu War of 1906—he raised a battalion of stretcher-bearers in both cases—and after his return to India during World War I he offered to be Britain’s “recruiting agent-in-chief.” Yet he was comfortable opposing the war against fascism.

Yet as Mr. Lelyveld makes abundantly clear, Gandhi’s organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908. “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom,” he wrote to Kallenbach. “The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.” For some ­reason, cotton wool and Vaseline were “a constant reminder” of Kallenbach, which Mr. Lelyveld believes might ­relate to the enemas Gandhi gave ­himself, although there could be other, less generous, explanations.

Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach about “how completely you have taken ­possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” Gandhi nicknamed himself “Upper House” and Kallenbach “Lower House,” and he made Lower House promise not to “look lustfully upon any woman.” The two then pledged “more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.”

They were parted when Gandhi ­returned to India in 1914, since the German national could not get permission to travel to India during ­wartime—though Gandhi never gave up the dream of having him back, writing him in 1933 that “you are always ­before my mind’s eye.” Later, on his ashram, where even married “inmates” had to swear celibacy, Gandhi said: “I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women.” You could even be thrown off the ashram for “excessive tickling.” (Salt was also forbidden, because it “arouses the senses.”)

The only political point there, about Britain “protecting” India during the war, has been decisively put to the lie by Madhushree Mukherji in her book Churchill’s Secret War. The rest is scurrilous innuendo, and makes for a highly unprofessional review. However, it could be that his woefully inadequate review will boost sales of the books that Andrew Roberts writes. Lelyveld is now collateral damage.

Ramachandra Guha compares the two reviews in HT:

Narendra Modi may never have banned Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul had the books editor of the Wall Street Journal been as discerning as his counterpart in the New York Times. The Manhattan dailies carried reviews on the same weekend, but these could not have been more different in style or substance. The Times reviewer, who has himself written fine books on India, judiciously assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Lelyveld’s approach, situated Gandhi historically, and — in the wake of the controversy that followed, this may be the crucial point — did not mention Hermann Kallenbach at all.

The Journal, on the other hand, gave the book to a British reviewer whose powers of judgement are such that he once spoke of Tony Blair as a latter-day Winston Churchill. An apologist for imperialisms past and present, who has defended water-boarding by the CIA and expressed solidarity with Boer racists, he used the platform to mount a character assassination of a great opponent of the British Empire. Quoting words and phrases out of context, he characterised Gandhi as a ‘sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist…’. Two paragraphs of his review were about Gandhi’s friendship with Kallenbach, described by the reviewer as ‘the love of his life… for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908’.

One other article says many of the things which need to be said in this context. I quote very selectively from Rajmohan Gandhi’s article in HT:

A long time ago, in 1927 in fact, when a pro-empire American woman called Katherine Mayo wrote an India-damning book called Mother India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called the book “a drain-inspector’s report”. To Mayo, the drains were India, Gandhi said, but he added that Indians could read her book with profit.

To think of banning the book would be wrong from every point of view, and doubly so in the light of Gandhi’s commitment to freedom of speech. In fact, extreme scepticism too should be welcomed, especially in the case of Gandhi, who wanted to live and die for the truth and wanted his life to be an open book.

Gandhi was a human being who, like all of us, lived with contradictions. But he united and emboldened Indians of all kinds like no one before him or after, and he offered the world a hope that the human conscience can triumph against long odds.

Today — more than six decades after his death — he serves as a reminder that irrespective of race, caste, gender, or religion, the world’s peoples must and can live together in peace and equality.

For the long run, we need not mind the Lelyveld book. The more light thrown on Gandhi, the better. Did he not say again and again that he wanted to turn the searchlight inwards? Closer study of his life is only likely to show that whether the subject is caste in India, or race in South Africa, or Hindu-Muslim relations, or relations between a colonised people and those of an empire, Gandhi’s heart was far closer to liberty, equality and, yes, fraternity, than his adversaries were willing to concede. Imperfect yet extraordinary, that heart can still speak to us.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

April 6, 2011 at 3:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] Before the storm: Lelyveld on Gandhi « Karela Fry Hoping to gain concessions from the British colonial authorities, he organized an Indian stretcher battalion to serve in the Boer War, and in an ignoble episode in 1906 assisted (also as the leader of a corps of stretcher-bearers) in the . During his 21 years in South Africa , Gandhi had not opposed the Boer War or the Zulu War of 1906—he raised a battalion of stretcher-bearers in both cases—and after his return to India during World War I he offered to be . […]

    British Style Zulu

    April 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  2. This whole controversy is upside-down, and you have done helpful work by contrasting Joseph Lelyveld’s book (as characterized by the NYT review) with the hit-piece penned in the Wall Street Journal by Churchill worshiper Andrew Roberts.

    The craziness begins with the fact that the controversy was stirred principally by the pseudo-review of Lelyveld’s book by Roberts, and not by Lelyveld’s generally adoring book itself. Second, Neither Narendra Modhi nor anyone else in India has actually read Lelyveld’s book; it has yet to published there. Third, Modhi stands for absolutely everything Gandhi-ji opposed. This book banning is nothing more than the cheap populism of a master politician.

    There is an excellent interview with Lelyveld about his book here.

    My take on the disgraceful piece by Roberts in the WSJ is here.



    April 17, 2011 at 7:09 am

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