Gandhi outed?

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In his March 26 Wall Street Journal review of Joseph Lelyveld's “Great Soul,” a biography of Mohandas Gandhi, the conservative historian Andrew Roberts terms Gandhi "a ceaseless self-promoter," a "sexual weirdo, a political incompetent, and a fanatical faddist," accusing the Indian leader of repeatedly botching his nation's independence movement. Evidently, Mr. Roberts is not an admirer of the Mahatma.

In this formidable indictment, the section that has attracted the greatest interest is (not surprisingly) the sexual part. Here is Mr. Roberts:

“[A]s 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.’"

For his part, Mr. Lelyveld, the biographer, has denied these inferences. Moreover, Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst who has written about Gandhi's sexuality and reviewed some of his correspondence with Kallenbach, said that he does not believe the two men were lovers. "It is quite a wrong interpretation," he said. "The Hindu idea is that sexuality has this elemental energy which gets dissipated," Kakar said. "If it can be sublimated and contained it can give you spiritual power. Gandhi felt his political power really came from his celibacy, from his spiritual power." He said that Gandhi often filled his letters, including those to female associates, with strong love language, but that this did not lead to physical intimacy.

Nonetheless, politicians in the state of Maharashtra, home to India's financial capital Mumbai {Bombay), have called for a ban on the book. Moreover, according to the Associated Press, Gujarat's state assembly voted unanimously to immediately ban "Great Soul."

Yet Ranjit Hoskote, general secretary of PEN India, which upholds the fight for free expression, condemned the ban and said local media had misconstrued both Lelyveld's intentions and the nature of Gandhi's relationship with Kallenbach. "You can't cite a worse example of third-hand reportage and comment," he said. "How can you ban a book you haven't read?"

India only decriminalized homosexual conduct in 2009. These reactions in that country are in large measure the product of the prudery introduced, along with the sodomy laws, into the Indian subcontinent by the British.

Yet there have also been expressions of dismay in this and other Western nations. Not having read the book, or being familiar with Gandhi scholarship, I cannot say whether these inferences of a homosexual relationship on the part of the Indian leader are warranted.

It does seem unfortunate, though, that the relationship--if it occurred--should seem dishonorable. The censorious reactions show that we have not come as far as we sometimes think we have in getting rid of the remnants of irrational homophobia.

I much prefer the following story, which I read many years ago in a book called “Inside Turkey” by John Gunther. The journalist was interviewing a Turkish university student, who was a fervent admirer of Kemal Ataturk. He asked if it was true that the Turkish leader had had homosexual relations. “Of course it is true!” exploded the student. “Mustafa Kemal excels in every form of sexual activity.”

It seems that we haven’t come that far yet.

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