Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dark star

Even as Indians gear up to watch the India-Pakistan match, nobly sacrificing their working day for this purpose, the secondary buzz in the press is about banning a book: "Great Soul", curiously subtitled "Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India" and authored by Joseph Lelyveld. The outrageous content of this book is, supposedly, that Gandhiji had a gay relationship with a German bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, in South Africa.

This controversy raises a number of fascinating points. First, as with any other controversy or event, the Indian press rarely does any research on issues but just keeps parroting what it has been fed, even while a rank amateur (like myself) equipped with nothing more than an internet browser, can unearth a lot more information. The book in question  is not believed to have made the specific allegation above, at least not directly. The hullabaloo has arisen from a rather different direction: an opportunistic review of the book by right-wing historian Andrew Roberts.  A direct quote from the review, which can be found here, is very revealing:

" "Great Soul" also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive ­intellectual, professing his love for ­mankind as a concept while actually ­despising people as individuals." 

In case you missed it, Robertsji is attempting to trash progressive intellectuals in general, and of course Gandhiji in particular. If you re-read the quote above you will note how he is careful to say the Lelyveld book merely provides "information to discern..", an honest admission that the tasteless adjectives "sexual weirdo", "political incompetent" etc are the handiwork of Roberts himself, who has converted his book review into a polemic motivated by his own far-right world-view. In fact the Gandhi-trashing is part of a much larger Robertsian canvas of re-configured history: Indians would have achieved self-rule sooner without Gandhi, who managed to constantly "irritate and frustrate" Jinnah; Gandhi's Quit India campaign was "designed to hinder the war effort" and had it been successful, would have led to Japanese genocide of Indians; ultimately India got independence not because of anything Gandhi did, but because the "near-bankrupt British led by the anti-imperialist Clement Attlee desperately wanted to leave India anyhow".

It is within this luridly Raj-nostalgic repainting of history that Roberts pulls out a bunch of personal material about Gandhi, including -- but not limited to -- the supposed gay relationship. And actually within the tiny portion of the article that actually reviews the book, he accuses Mr. Lelyveld of "making labored excuses for him [Gandhi] at every turn of this nonetheless well-researched and well-written book". So Lelyveld is hardly the villain here.

All the above made me rather more curious about Andrew Roberts and some browsing led me to a fascinating article about him by journalist Johann Hari titled "The Dark Side of Andrew Roberts". Hari tells us that Roberts is a staunch defender not just of the British Raj but of white supremacy in general and specifically of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. The Wikipedia entry on Roberts mentions that he supported the war in Iraq and the war against "Islamofascism", describing the latter as a World War in which yet again "the English-speaking peoples find themselves in the forefront of protecting civilization".

So I, at least, find it rather easy to dismiss Robertsji. But what about Gandhiji? Was he really as Roberts claims, a racist, a fanatical faddist, a sexual weirdo, a "ceaseless self-promoter" and also a bisexual? And here the going gets tricky. Whatever one may think of the accuser, there is something in these comments and the accompanying quotes that makes one ponder. The easiest charge to dispose of is the one about being bi, or gay. Let's assume it's exactly true as claimed -- but then so what? There was no element of coercion in it and the relationship -- whatever it was -- seems to have been consensual and satisfying (there is of course the issue of Gandhi possibly being unfaithful to his spouse, but this is also involved in some of the other "sexual weirdo" charges that I find more worrying). So attempts currently under way -- specially by the Congress party -- to suppress/ban the book on the rationale that the "gay" references are demeaning, are particularly misguided.

 So then here's the worrying part. Did he refer to black South Africans in these terms: "Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized"? Did he say about white rule "We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do... We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race"? Did he say to his 18-year-old grandniece Manu "We both may be killed by the Muslims, and must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked."? And did he later defend this act by saying "If I don't let Manu sleep with me, though I regard it as essential that she should, wouldn't that be a sign of weakness in me?".

If the answer to all these questions is "yes", as I believe it probably is, then the nation must accept that the Great Soul was, in some measure, almost all the things that Roberts claims. Except "political incompetent", which was always the most absurd of the charges, though of course the main one from the point of view of Roberts.

So where does that leave us? I can't say. A great person can have many flaws, one supposes. But  the Government of India will have a hard time saving Gandhiji's reputation from a bunch of unsavoury charges -- unless they decide to ban his own writings.

P.S. As for the book by Lelyveld, anyone really interested can download it to their PC from this link at for a mere 15 dollars.