A new book talks about Mahatma Gandhi’s sexuality – this time bisexuality. The counter-argument assumes that because he was so frank about his own life, including his views on sex and wrote about these in My Experiments With Truth, it should be enough. The problem is that we don’t have to take his version to be the final truth.
Those of us who have read works about him from different sources, by his estranged son too, know that from another angle the persona may appear different. Not only was Gandhi a public figure and the mascot of the freedom movement, his ideology persists and is used and abused in equal measure by the Indian political class as well as his quotes are seen as inspirational material for international leaders from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama.
In any part of the world you cannot mess with public figures, but there is at least some element of analyses, however off-tangent, respected in the West, although political correctness regarding some groups and people is now the new version of ‘freedom’ there too. However, in India sainted figures are out-of-bounds. Mahatma Gandhi has been on a permanent pedestal and any critique of him is scorned. So much so that even the rightwing parties – it was one of their members who killed him – get concerned about his portrayal. The Gujarat government has banned the book. It makes political sense, not ideological.
While it is true that a person’s work must be given precedence, such a person who made his personal life as an example of his social, economic and political credo lays himself open to further examination. Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India implies that Gandhi was bisexual based on letters between him and his German friend Hermann Kallenbach. The author himself says that he has not indicated any such thing and reviewers are jumping to conclusions.
The point is that Gandhi’s experiments did include sleeping with his grandniece to test that he had overcome his weaknesses. It is unusual, especially in Indian families, for men to share a bed with a female family member who is not a wife and maybe a pre-pubescent daughter; even male and female siblings are kept away from each other. Gandhi simply used his young disciples for his own ends, however honourable the motives may have been from his perspective. Sleeping alone and not wandering about looking for temptation might have served the same purpose.
It is rather surprising that Indians who are so closed when it comes to sexuality just don’t seem to care about Gandhi’s conduct. But if there is a whiff of alternate sexuality, they would really lose it. The media, too, has attributed the language in the letters to “late 19th -early 20th century style of overflowing English”.
In his first letter in June 1909, Gandhi wrote:
“I address my first letter from the train to you as I expect most from you and as you are uppermost in my thoughts. When heart speaks to heart, speech is superfluous. Yet I cannot help saying this much: I do not understand your extraordinary love. I hope I deserve it all. Our mutual attachment is the strongest possible testimony of our having lived before in bodies rather than the present ones.”
There is a possibility of a spiritual alliance and a deep bond. Gandhi was anyway fascinated by white skin and white thoughts! He probably was also alluding to reincarnation. Incidentally, the German was referred to as ‘Lower House’ and Gandhi as ‘Upper House’; since there was no Parliamentary democracy prevalent at the time, it could not allude to the elected ministerial hub and the nominated one. So, perhaps Gandhi was indeed a control freak. There was also a contract between the two:
The first one with seven points was a simple one and talked of how the two would divide work in the farm near Lawley. The second agreement talked of Kallenbach going to meet his family in Europe and not spending money beyond what was “befitting the position of a simple-living poor farmer’’. It also says `Lower House’ would not look “lustfully upon any woman”. The agreement signed by both ends with following line: “The consideration for all the above tasks imposed by Lower House on himself is more love, and, yet more love between the two houses – such love as, they hope, the world has not seen.”
Was Gandhi initiating him into the frugal way of life and of celibacy? It is interesting that even in an agreement the tasks have been imposed on the Lower House "by himself". If there was this great spiritual love, then obviously the world did not see it.
It was a letter written to Kallenbach in September that has grabbed attention:
“Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed. The eternal toothpick is there. The corns, cottonwool and Vaseline are a constant reminder.”
For someone who was striving for detachment from all things worldly, I guess these memories are not expensive and fit quite snugly into an austere mould.
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Picture shows Gandhi, Sonia Schlesin and Hermann Kallenbach