Gandhi’s love misunderstood

Sometime ago Kompas online reprinted an article from the Daily Mail (March 28, 2011) describing Gandhi’s supposed bisexuality. It is surprising that a prestigious paper like the Daily Mail did not investigate the allegation nor do a proper review of the book that was the source of the article.

The book in question is Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India written by Joseph Lelyveld (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2011). Having read the article, I got hold of a copy of the book, and, indeed it took me quite some time to find the pages that were the source of the Daily Mail article.

Finally I found the references between pages 88 and 96, meaning only eight pages of the 349-page book were dedicated to the topic. This clearly shows how tendentious and prejudiced the writer of the Daily Mail article was.

The relationship between Gandhi, the Great Soul, and architect Kallenbach was deemed sexual by the Daily Mail. However, in Great Soul, the author said the relationship was “clearly ‘homoerotic’ rather than homosexual, intending through that choice of words to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more” (page 88).

Great Soul author Joseph Lelyveld pointed out that the pair was close “in an age when the concept of platonic love gained little credence”. In those days, the West was still not familiar with the concept of “unconditional love”.

The compassionate love of Jesus was revered and worshipped at that time — but was hardly practiced. The Western colonization of the East is a historical truth that cannot be denied.

Wallace Wattles lamented on this state of affairs in his excellent book, A New Christ. How then could those in the West understand the relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach?

The correspondence between Gandhi and Kallenbach, of which only Gandhi’s letters remain, can easily be misquoted, as Lelyveld points out, “to suggest a conclusion” (page 88).

Gandhi was quoted as writing that Kallenbach’s portrait stood on his mantle piece in his bedroom along with cotton wool and Vaseline, about which Lelyveld wrote: “The most plausible guesses are that the Vaseline in the London hotel room may have to do with enemas, to which he regularly resorted” (page 89). It does not suggest anything sexual at all.

The Daily Mail also writes at great length about Gandhi addressing Kallenbach as “Lower House” and himself as “Upper House”. Once again, this has nothing to do with sexuality. Lelyveld explains that Lower House and Upper House were metaphors evoking the British Parliament.

Kallenbach, as detailed in the book, was two years younger and thus was addressed as the Lower House in the parliamentary sense, “a jocular allusion, it seems, to his role as the source of appropriation. Gandhi was the ‘Upper House’ [and therefore gets to vote down excessive spending].”

The metaphors grew out of the organization of their communal settlement, known as the Tolstoy Farm. Their relationship was based on unconditional love, and thus there was no suggestion of any sexuality at all (page 89-90).

I wonder how the writer of the Daily Mail drew a sexual interpretation of their relationship.

Indeed from page 91-96, author Lelyveld describes a very cordial relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach, where Kallenbach always respectfully addressed the future Mahatma as Mr. Gandhi (page 95).

Great Soul highlights the human side of Gandhi and is in no way abusive or disrespectful. It is a welcome edition to the ever increasing library of Gandhian thought. That the Daily Mail could produce such an article is very much regretted. I also humbly hope that local papers will be more careful in reprinting such thoughtless and poorly investigated articles.

As an Indonesian, I would be furious if someone overlooked all the great qualities of Bung Karno or Hatta and indulged in character assassination decades after their demise. I can feel the pain of not only my Indian brethrens but also of Gandhi lovers all over the world. Having read the Daily Mail article it is, in my opinion, a disgrace to twist the facts in order to create a media sensation.

The writer is the founder of the Islamic Movement for Non-Violence, www.islamnon-violence.org.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.