Gandhi’s life, in letter and spirit

The publication of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld has become the occasion for some controversies about Mahatma Gandhi’s sex life and his alleged tendency to be a racist while dealing with the problems of black South Africans.

I, as India’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom (1985-88), had the opportunity of acquiring over 260 letters addressed by Gandhi to his friend and disciple Hermann Kallenbach, a rich Jewish German architect, resident in South Africa, at a public auction at Sotheby’s, London, on December 18, 1986. Lelyveld has relied mainly on these letters, which are now with National Archives, to understand the friendship between Gandhi and Kallenbach. The entire South Africa part of Gandhi’s biography takes up only 100 of the 400 pages of the book and of this the portion relating to Kallenbach is rather small. Yet, some reviewers of Lelyveld’s book have devoted disproportionately long space to write about the friendship between Gandhi and Kallenbach. The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Roberts, has suggested quite wrongly that the author himself had entertained doubts whether Gandhi had not displayed bi-sexual tendencies in his relations with Kallenbach. But given the fact that the author has not made any such observation himself directly, the clamour for banning the book seems to have risen out of gross misunderstanding about the thrust and contents of the book. Lelyveld’s The Great Soul is a brilliant biography of the great soul, and if this book had been banned by a few more state governments, India would have been the real loser, not Lelyveld.
Now, the letters acquired by me in 1987. I got to know that a rich university in the US had sent its agent to bid in the auction of the Kallenbach letters and would offer any price to get hold of them. When I discussed participation in the bid with a senior officer who was then responsible for the subject of education at the Indian mission, I found that he was somewhat nervous about this task. He told me that he would be criticised in Delhi government circles if the price was high, and equally badly if he failed to get these letters. I assured him that I would personally be present at the auction and that he should go on bidding as long as he saw my right thumb held high. This scheme worked and we were able to clinch the deal in our favour, though the price we had to pay was more than double of what was advertised. The advertised price was £70,000 to £80,000, but the Sotheby’s started the auction with £90,000. My right thumb remained raised and firm till the agent of the university gave up bidding. The papers were acquired for the Government of India for £140,000, and in addition to that we had to pay as fees and value-added tax (VAT), £14,000 and £2,100 respectively.
While preparing the evaluation of Gandhiji’s letters to Kallenbach, no questions whatsoever about Gandhi’s so-called bi-sexualism ever entered my mind; on the other hand I was astounded to find that Gandhi, even at a young age, had become the most uncompromising votary of truth and neither family ties nor any other considerations weighed on him in standing up for what he considered was the truth.
It was clear to me from the letters that Gandhi’s life as the “Mahatma” had advanced very far while he was still in South Africa. In two letters of May 1913, Gandhi expressed intense mental agony on account of a simple aberration in the conduct of his young son Devadas — eating “stolen lemons”. In his letter of May 1, 1913, to Kallenbach, Gandhi writes, “Devadas made me weep today as I have not wept for years”. Gandhi says that when Devadas was confronted with the fact that eating “stolen lemons” was unbecoming of a Satyagrahi, Devadas replied that “he did not immediately confess his guilt as he was afraid of being hit by me, as if I am in the habit of hitting boys. And so I felt that by way of a lesson to him I would deposit a few slaps on my cheeks which I did and then felt the grief so much that I wept bitterly”.
In a letter to Kallenbach dated April 12, 1914, Gandhi narrates the unpleasant exchange of angry words between him and Kasturba and proceeds to give his assessment of her personality at that time. “She has a character and she has none”, wrote Gandhi. “She is the most venomous woman I have ever met. She never forgets, never forgives.” And then the tenderness in their relationship emerges and Gandhi takes a good deal of the blame on himself. He continues: “I have nursed her as a son would nurse his mother but my love has not been sufficiently intense and selfless to make her change her nature”.
Some of Gandhi’s letters written immediately after his return to India reveal the tension in the family caused by his taking into the ashram a person belonging to the then untouchable caste. In his letter of September 17, 1915, he writes, “I have taken to the Ashram a ‘pariah’ from these parts. This is an extreme step. It caused a break-up between Mrs Gandhi and myself. I lost my temper. She tried it too much”. In another letter of the same month Gandhi writes, “The steps I have taken mean a great deal so that it may alter my life. I may have to completely take up ‘pariah’ work”.
I can only plead with those in authority for education at the state levels that instead of wasting time on the views of some reviewers, they should ensure that some of these letters, suitably edited with background notes for the easy understanding of the younger generation, are prescribed as text books so that Gandhiji’s words do not remain confined to the National Archives. The publication of some of these incidents in textbooks will help young students to understand better the personality and beliefs of one whom we all call the Father of the Nation and on whom Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had conferred the title of Mahatma on behalf of the people of India after his return to his motherland. It will also make us proud to recognise the historical fact that such a person in flesh and blood really walked on our part of the earth not so long ago.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

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