Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld.

I heard about the controversy surrounding Great Soul before I ever got a copy in my hands. So the main question I had was “Is this going to read like a Jackie Collins novel, or is this a factual biography?” The main objections from the State Assembly in Gujarat, India, which resulted in their vote to ban the book, involved suggestions that Gandhi had a gay relationship, and that Gandhi made racist comments. So lets tackle these issues right away.

Regarding the purported gay relationship: the author stays within the evidence and does not stray into speculation. Lelyveld presents the existing letters from the Mahatma to the architect, Hermann Kallenbach, his alleged beloved. The author’s citation and interpretation are as follows:

If not infatuated, Gandhi was clearly drawn to the architect. In a letter from London in 1909, he writes: “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.” Cotton wool and Vaseline, he then says, “are a constant reminder.” The point, he goes on, “is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” (Lelyveld, p. 89.)

Lelyveld does not then jump to say “and therefore, they were having sex.” At most, we can conclude that there was undoubtedly an affectionate, homoerotic relationship between the two men. While the question for a free-thinker may be more along the lines of “who cares who Gandhi was intimate with; that’s his business,” the State Assembly of Gujarat clearly has enough issues with gay men that even the suggestion of homoeroticism is too much.

The evidence of Gandhi’s racism is far more conclusive. Here, The Mahatma’s own words indict him. In 1896 Gandhi writes about “the raw Kaffir,” a pejorative term for black South Africans, “whose sole ambition is to collect a number of cattle to buy a wife, then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” (Lelyveld, p. 57.) Twelve years later, Gandhi’s attitude towards black people has not improved. In 1908, reporting in South Africa on his first incarceration, Gandhi writes:

We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs…We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. It is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized--the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. (Lelyveld, p. 54.)

Years later, Gandhi stops using the word Kaffir, which does show some progress.

But there is much to Great Soul, beyond discussions of race and sexual orientation, worth reading. Gandhi, as a political operator, is quite intriguing. The man was a lawyer long before he was a saint. He is shown courting support from Indian Muslims not only because he honestly stands for Hindu-Muslim unity, but also because this stance wins him political prominence. “He stepped to the fore for the first time in the national movement, on a unity platform.” (Lelyveld, p. 159.) Great Soul shows this leader forced into unpleasant compromises on a number of occasions. In dealing with upper caste prejudice against untouchables, Gandhi must temper his commitment to “taking down untouchability” to avoid “cleaving his movement” for independence (Lelyveld, p. 193.) Periodically, Gandhi uses religion inconsistently as justification for his actions. “a method that could be classed as immoral when pursued by others was a religious obligation when undertaken by himself” (Lelyveld, p. 230.) Even the pure white hem of a saint’s garment can be sullied when dragged through the dust of politics.

I must add that Lelyveld writes beautifully and compassionately about Gandhi. At one train stop in India, Gandhi brushes past students and notables, and heads toward a roped-off enclosure of untouchables where he greets them and sings with them:

“He was raising the subject of common humanity, not only for the sake of the untouchables, but for the students and the notables and the villagers who’d taken the dust from his feet. And, as so often in his unusually well-recorded life, it is the action rather than the always earnest, sometimes contradictory, sometimes moving words that leap off the page” (Lelyveld, p. 196.)

This is not a biographer who is attempting to deride his subject. Lelyveld presents his material in a sensitive, accurate manner, without the extremes sensationalism or worship.


Lelyveld, Joseph. Great Soul. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.