TRIDIP SUHRUD writes from Ahmedabad: The debate surrounding Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi’s Struggle With India, is a sad reflection on the nature of public discourse.
None of the commentators in this country claim to have read the book (which is yet to be published in India).
The entire controversy is based on one review by Andrew Roberts in The Wall Street Journal in which the reviewer drew his own inference that the author of the Great Soul had described Gandhi as a ‘racist’ and a ‘bi-sexual’.
As one of those who have in fact read the book, I would like to place on record that Lelyveld at no place in the book has described Gandhi as a racist.
In fact, as one of the foremost authorities on apartheid and racial discrimination, Lelyveld has shown the cultural distance that Gandhi traversed in a short span of only four months in his understanding of the ‘native question’ in colonial South Africa.
The book records with empathy and understanding Gandhi’s role in the Zulu rebellion and public advocacy on behalf of all people of colour.
Gandhi’s correspondence with Hermann Kallenbach has for decades been part of the public domain, ever since the government of India acquired these in an auction in South Africa.
These letters are housed at the national archives of India and were published as volume 96 of the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), a project of the publications division of government of India.
The editors of CWMG in their preface to the volume write that the acquisition and publication of these letters have brought home “ whole invaluable new world of Gandhiji hitherto not glimpsed by historiographers.”
They further state:
“Running through the letters to Kallenbach is the Gandhi-Kasturba story, told with complete openness, sometimes with love, sometimes with wounded pride, and yet at other times in sheer desperation.”
Kallenbach, according to the editors of CWMG, viewed Gandhi as “a friend, and companion, mother and mentor”. They also mention the secret pact between the two to address each other as “Upper House” and “Lower House.”
They state that with Kallenbach, Gandhi shared a “rare intimacy.”
We should also be reminded that a historian and a biographer of Gandhi is hampered as only a part of the archive is available to us. Gandhi destroyed most of the letters that Kallenbach wrote to him, hence we have only half a story.
Lelyveld relies on these letters to write the story of the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship, which he does with sensitivity. His is not the voice of salacious gossip, in fact he warns against any such reading. He also is at pains to point out that we as a culture might have lost the ability to comprehend rare intimacy between men, which is not of the sexual kind.
As we seek to ban the book on the ground that it constitutes insult to the Father of the Nation, we should remember that the book itself makes no statements of the kind which are attributed to it. But, that cannot be the sole ground on which the decision to ban or not ban a book rests.
No civilised, democratic society can ban a book, however blasphemous or salacious. The only response to a book can be a book, a counter-argument.
We should also remind ourselves that for Gandhi and his associates his experiments on brahmacharya were not part of their secret lives.
Brahmacharya (conduct that leads one to Truth) was for Gandhi an experiment with truth and Swaraj. As an experiment in truth it was incumbent upon Gandhi the Sadhak, to place in the public domain his striving to attain perfect Brahmacharya.
This openness of Gandhi allowed a Nirmal Kumar Bose to provide ‘thick description’ of Gandhi’s brahmacharya experiments during the moving march of Noakhali.
Sudhir Kakkar and Bhikhu Parekh have also tried to understand and explain Gandhi’s sexuality and his experiments with brahamcharya; the former providing a psychoanalytic frame and the later seeking to draw our attention to the relationship between spiritual potency and political power.
I make a plea to lift the ban on the book and allow for a discussion on the book with equanimity.
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