There’s no easy way of coming to terms with Mahatma Gandhi’s sex life, as his biographers have realised in the over 100 years since he sparked off a cottage industry of books about him. To dwell on this aspect of his life is to exclude his other achievements and invite the label of sensationalism. But to censor it would be telling only half his story. How to get the balance right is what worries most Gandhian scholars, including presumably, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld, whose otherwise scholarly new biography, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle, was banned even before it hit the stands in Gujarat for daring to talk about yet another of Gandhi’s controversial love relationships, this time allegedly with a man friend, Hermann Kallenbach.
Opposing the ban, Lelyveld denied that his book is “some kind of sensationalist potboiler”. “It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say he was homosexual”—was his first response to the ban and the furore over the book. What it does say, however, is that Gandhi’s relationship with the luxury-loving architect and body-builder was “the most intimate, also ambiguous, relationship of his lifetime”.
“Intimate and ambiguous” are words that could well describe the author’s portrait of the friendship between the two. “It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man,” writes Lelyveld in the South Africa section of the book, citing a “respected Gandhi scholar” as describing the relationship as “clearly homoerotic”. Another Gandhian scholar, Tridib Suhrud, is quoted as saying: “They were a couple.” Kallenbach himself, according to the author, “later remarked that they’d lived together almost in the same bed”.
And how did such a crucial relationship—Gandhi’s feelings for Kallenbach, according to the author, were a powerful factor for both his turning inwards and being tied down to the Transvaal—escape the slew of biographies in recent years by the world’s most renowned Gandhian scholars, including his own grandsons? Lelyveld explains that Gandhi destroyed all of Kallenbach’s “charming love notes” to him because he believed Kallenbach wanted them to be seen “by no other eyes”. And yet, Lelyveld points out, Kallenbach himself preserved all the letters (some 350 of them between 1909 and 1944) that Gandhi wrote to him, and his descendants even put them to auction. They were acquired by the National Archives of India, and finally published in Gandhi’s collected works in 1994. “Most recent Gandhi studies tend to deal with them warily, if at all,” Lelyveld writes.
Lelyveld begins by warning his reader: “In an age when the concept of Platonic love gains little credence, selectively chosen details of the relationship and quotations from letters can easily be arranged to suggest a conclusion.” Then, inexplicably, he leads his reader on to the exact conclusion he’s warned them against: we are told that Kallenbach was a lifetime bachelor, gymnast and body-builder, that Gandhi boasted of his physical training under the legendary strongman Eugen Sandow. He tells us Gandhi was never preoccupied with body-building but still refers to Gandhi’s “taut torso”.
“If not infatuated, Gandhi was clearly drawn to the architect,” Lelyveld continues, citing one of Gandhi’s letters. “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.” He dwells lovingly on the details in Gandhi’s letter: the cottonwool and Vaseline, “a constant reminder”. Gandhi’s words—“How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance”—are coldly scrutinised. “What are we to make of the word ‘possession’ or the reference to petroleum jelly,” asks Lelyveld. “The most plausible guesses,” he goes on to answer, “are that the Vaseline...may have to do with enemas...or for massage,” adding that Gandhi usually relied on the women in his entourage for his massages, “arousing gossip that has never quite died down”.
Lelyveld then dwells on the “teasing pet names” he thinks Gandhi coined—Kallenbach, two years the younger, is addressed as ‘Lower House’ while Gandhi himself is ‘Upper House’. But he omits to tell us that Gandhi addressed several other close associates in South Africa by similar coinages, ‘Buffer House’, for instance. The allusion, according to the author, is in the parliamentary sense—Lower House getting the right to pronounce on practical matters while the Upper House “gets to think deep thoughts, strategise, and direct the moral development of his other half in this touching bicameral relationship”. But just in case you think this a harmless joke, we are then told: “Upper House makes Lower House promise ‘not to contract any marriage tie during his absence’ nor ‘look lustfully upon any woman’.” The two Houses then mutually pledge “more love, and yet more love...such love as they hope the world has not yet seen”. And in case you didn’t get the message, Lelyveld rubs it in: “By then...the two had been together for more than three years.”
Deconstructionist J. Lelyveld
Having hammered his message home, Lelyveld does yet another turnaround: “We can indulge in speculation, or look more closely at what the two men actually say about their mutual efforts to repress sexual urges in this period.” He goes on to explain how it became Gandhi’s self-imposed mission to “drill his housemate in...self-denial”. Other editors of the Kallenbach letters point out how willingly Kallenbach submitted to Gandhi’s tests, refusing to protest even when Gandhi threw his precious field glasses into the sea. But in Lelyveld’s eyes, it’s a sign of Kallenbach’s weakness: “He is more than an acolyte, less than an equal. Never...does he present an intellectual challenge to the spiritual explorer who’s become his companion.”
Lelyveld then goes on to Gandhi’s sleeping arrangements with Kasturba, a thorny subject which eludes the best of his biographers. This is the time when Gandhi took his famous vow of celibacy, and he and Kasturba, as Lelyveld tells us, have been sleeping in separate quarters for more than five years by now. But instead of dwelling on the tensions this may have caused in their marriage, we are asked to ignore it, just as Lelyveld ignores the fact that Kallenbach was a great favourite with Kasturba, which would have been unlikely if he was her rival for Gandhi’s affection.
On Kallenbach’s jealousy and possessiveness, however, we hear a great deal. There’s Gandhi’s feisty secretary, Sonja Schlesin, 17 years his junior. It was Kallenbach who introduced her to Gandhi, but that didn’t prevent him from considering her a rival for his soulmate’s time. Then there’s Gandhi’s new-found fondness for British clergyman C.F. Andrews. Lelyveld quotes Gandhi reassuring Kallenbach in a letter: “Though I love and almost adore Andrews, I would not exchange you for him. You still remain the dearest and nearest to me.”
So what are we to make of this unlikely friendship between two men who were destined to go their separate ways: Gandhi to lead the Indian National Congress and Kallenbach to the war against the Nazis and a rediscovery of his Jewish roots. According to the letters themselves, it was certainly a friendship of “rare intimacy”, as the editors of the Collected Works say. They reveal a Kallenbach who loves to give gifts to Gandhi, his wife and children, a handyman who came to the rescue when a bathroom had to be laid or a pipe burst in the primitive farm where Gandhi set up his ashram near Johannesburg. He became such a favourite with Kasturba that Gandhi wrote to him from India saying she missed him most of all. A man whose affection for Gandhi was so deep that Gandhi called him his “advertising agent” and counselled him to subdue his feelings for him because he didn’t deserve it.
According to Suhrud, a scholar quoted in Lelyveld’s book and now supporting a move to lift the ban on the book, the letters Gandhi wrote to C.F. Andrews were equally intense and intimate. Gandhi tended to attract non-conformist spiritual seekers like Henry Polak, who was a Quaker and a Jew, or Kallenbach, who was a theosophist, says Suhrud. “It was clearly a different cultural mode, where men could address men in a tone that is now acceptable only between men and women.”
For Sudhir Kakar, who has already written two books about Gandhi’s troubled sexuality, the suggestion about Gandhi’s homosexuality is outrageous. “He’d have killed himself if anyone had said that to him,” Kakar says, pointing out how an incident of sexual games between boys at his South African ashram disturbed him so deeply that he went on a fast. But the possibility that Gandhi had an intense non-sexual relationship with Kallenbach is not beyond belief, he says. It’s hardly unique, he says, “Gandhi could be very intense with people who were very close to him, both men and women.” Many people fell passionately in love with Gandhi, according to Kakar. It was the combination of his fearlessness, lack of inhibition and his ability to be truly himself.
As for the way Gandhi played hot and cold with Kallenbach, Kakar says it’s the same pattern of behaviour Gandhi followed with another person he was intensely involved with: Miraben. “He allowed people to get close to him, but once they got too close, he pushed them away.” Gandhi wasn’t playing games, according to Kakar, only defending himself sub-consciously. He needed adoration, so he would pull people closer and closer until they started disturbing his equilibrium, then he pushed them away until he recovered his own balance. Like all very virtuous persons, “he didn’t care what impact this had on the other person in the relationship.”
So what is it about the sex life of our Mahatma, the man who felt sex was the ugliest act in the world, who gave it up in the prime of his life and regularly exhorted his near-and-dear ones “to mend their ways and not do it again”, that continues to fascinate his biographers and readers alike? According to Kakar, it’s not his sex life we are all interested in, but his struggle with it. And no one certainly has written more regularly and prolifically about his sex life than Gandhi himself. Which is why Lelyveld is right: Don’t ban the book, discuss it.