Friday, April 8, 2011

Mahatma A 'Gay' Icon? Why Not?

Come on, India. Grow up! If the Great Soul was indeed attracted to another man, is that so hard to accept or understand? Which century are we living in? This column is being written on April Fool’s Day. We are looking like the biggest fools on earth right now. One can expect bachelor boy Narendra Modi to instantly cash in on the ‘sentiments’ of the people of his state and ban the controversial book after dubbing it ‘perverse’. Paradoxically enough, those same people are free to visit the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and read those ‘ perverse’ letters for themselves. I wonder how many people from Modi’s city bother to go to the ashram in the first place, forget about examining the many Gandhi volumes that it houses. Yes, the same archival material used by the author (Joseph Lelyveld) for the book “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.”    The biggest slap in the face has come from Gandhiji’s own — his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, and great-grandson Tushar Gandhi, both of whom have described the ban as ‘un-Gandhian.’ Any sensible policymaker would let it go at that. And chances are the book will find its own level, its own takers and detractors, as should happen in a democracy. By attempting to suppress it, the one fallout will be this - “Great Soul” will register even greater sales! Censorship is always counter-productive — the more you suppress, the higher the curiosity. We saw that with the James Laine book on Shivaji (thank you Supreme Court, for showing better sense than the government of Maharashtra). We shall see the same happening with this book as well. But, hello! Who can think of reading a red-hot book, when the collective focus of the country is on the red-hot game of cricket?    Let’s face it, what’s the single most startling disclosure in the book? That the author has claimed our revered Mahatma (and perhaps the world’s most famous, self- declared celibate) had a long-term relationship with a German-Jewish architect and body builder called Hermann Kallenbach? Which makes Kallenbach, not Kasturba, the great love of his life! So? Since this ‘juicy’ tidbit was carried in nearly all the mainstream newspapers in India, it has been met with a rather tepid reaction that may surprise the more conservative elements of our society. “Really? Interesting!” said a slightly bored 20- year-old reading the news, before turning away. That was it. No rioting on the streets. No demand to ban the book. No baying for Lelyveld’s blood. We have grown up! That is the best news ever! Today, homosexuality is no longer a taboo subject and is out there, along with other aspects of sex.    Whether Gandhiji’s subsequent ‘ experiments’ with various truths were a part of his mission to come to terms with his own inclinations will remain a topic for future historians to tackle. But, according to this well-researched book ( Lelyveld has based his work on material that is easily accessible, and quotes from “The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi” - supplementary volume 5 from the archives at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad) there are several controversial nuggets that suggest Gandhiji was indeed in a relationship of sorts with Kallenbach, with whom he shared a home for two years. He quotes from one of Gandhiji’s letters to Hermann, in which he confesses, “ How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” A reader is free to interpret those passionate lines any which way and even disregard sexual implications when Gandhiji jokingly refers to himself as “Upper House” and Kallenbach as “Lower House”.    I have yet to read the book, but I would think an author with such impressive credentials would have done his homework scrupulously before going into print. In any case, Gandhiji’s sexuality has always been a subject of such complexity and debate that one more tome shouldn’t matter. Unless, of course, some overzealous politician with nothing better to do, decides to make an issue out of it. Whether the Mahatma preferred men over women is nobody’s business but his. We in India have such idiotic standards when it comes to sex. If Gandhiji wrote, “I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women,” he is entitled to his opinion.    So, it’s best we keep scholars, intellectuals and academics out of this. And please, let’s also leave out his great-grandchildren, assorted grandnephews, grandnieces and other descendants. Nobody can possibly speak on behalf of the Mahatma and ‘clarify’ anything. It’s not necessary either! There is this book and no doubt, there will be many more in the future. Nothing can take away from Gandhiji’s greatness, least of all his love for another man. It’s amusing to read Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud’s ‘ defence’ of the Mahatma, in which he says, “In the late 19th and early 20 th century men addressed each other in a way that can be construed now as lovers.” That’s pretty twee. Who needs such justifications? Suhrud also explains that the two had “a deep bond that borders on attraction of the platonic kind.” Okay, buddy. If you say so.    Let’s hope whatever it was that Gandhiji shared with Kallenbach brought joy and fulfilment to their lives. Gandhiji as a gay icon? Why not? I think that’s pretty cool! Perhaps it will drive young Indians to read more about the man who altered their destiny and gave India freedom.