New Book Claims Gandhi “Gay Or Bisexual,” Already Banned in Gujarat

A new book on Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld may be banned in India before it’s even published. It’s already been banned in Gujarat, the state Gandhi grew up in. This is problematic, but then, so are the suggestions that the book suggests that Gandhi might have been bisexual and that this is a. relevant and b. a bad thing. Let’s discuss.

Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India draws on historical letters and other research as a means of exploring Gandhi’s life, his struggle for social justice, and the evolution of his values. It is currently available in print in the U.S. and as an e-book but has not yet been published in India. However, on the basis of several reviews, it’s launching debate anyway.

In what seems like an intentionally inflammatory review in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Roberts argues that this particular depiction “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.” He also argues that Gandhi was a hypocrite, because he denounced lawyers but was one; quotes from people who called him “devious and untrustworthy”; and mentions his hemorrhoids. In a section of the review that seems to be causing a large amount of controversy, he also writes that Gandhi was in love with with Hermann Kallenbach, an architect and bodybuilder Gandhi lived with in Johannesburg, South Africa. Roberts speculates on alternative uses for the cotton wool and Vaseline that Gandhi’s letters say remind him of Kallenbach (Lelyveld relates these to the enemas Gandhi gave himself) and suggests that when Gandhi asked Kallenbach to “promise not to ‘look lustfully upon any woman” he meant himself as an alternative.

The review ends with a statement of Roberts’ belief that Gandhi’s campaigns were ineffective, and the only one that worked — getting the British out of India — was only successful because they were leaving anyway. To Indians who regard Gandhi as a father to the nation and his philosophies as part of the foundation of the country, this is deeply shocking and offensive. Other reviews, such as those in the Daily Mail and the Mumbai Mirror cite the same passages that Roberts does, in one case under the headline, “Book claims German man was Gandhi’s secret love.”

GANDHI AND KALLENBACH

The book, which has not been published in India yet, is being considered for a ban on the sole basis of reviews like the one in the Wall Street Journal (Roberts, who is a British historian, also has a book coming out in May, and is probably getting a ton of residual publicity from his review). This is before anyone in India has actually read it.

In an interview with the New York Times, Lelyveld, who has previously won a Pulitzer, emphasizes that he “treaded very carefully” with the book and says “I’m surprised to find myself at the center of [a spectacle], because I think this is a careful book, and I consider myself a friend of India.” Additionally, in an email to the Associated Press, he writes, “The book does not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual. It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. This is not news.” He also says he hopes someone will read it before it gets banned.

But right now, on the basis of the reviews alone, things aren’t looking good. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, said the book was “perverse in nature” and that it “has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.” M. Veerappa Moily, India’s law minister, said “the book denigrates the national pride and leadership” and that officials will consider banning it. While it’s possible for anyone to suggest that a book be banned, less than one a year actually is.

According to the New York Times, the central issues at play are the public perceptions of both sexuality and Gandhi. While India has recently become less sexually conservative, coming out as anything but straight is still a big deal, and a law against sodomy was only struck down in 2009. Additionally, despite Gandhi’s status and influence, like any public/historical figure, there is a wide range of knowledge about his life and philosophy, and a lot of it is idyllic.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to your interests, there is the issue of whether or not Gandhi was gay. Roberts snidely suggests that he was. Andrew Sullivan, in the Atlantic, suggests that “based on this evidence” he must have been. Lelyveld says his book does not say Gandhi was gay or bisexual. It would be radical in India to sugget that Roberts and Sullivan are right; it would be radical anywhere else to suggest that Lelyveld is, and that two men can care about each other as deeply as Gandhi and Kallenbach seem to have without being in a relationship. Or even more radically: maybe, in light of everything he did, Gandhi’s sex life should not even be an issue.


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Carolyn Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

Carolyn has written 1101 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Pingback: BiFemLounge.Com » New Book Claims Gandhi “Gay Or Bisexual,” Already Banned in Gujarat – Autostraddle

  2. Don’t the contents of this article directly contradict the title?

    The WSJ piece was clearly written by someone who found the idea of non-violence naive and was all to eager to seize the opportunity to try to bash its most recognized proponent. I hate that paper more every day.

  3. I am an indian, who grew up with gandhism as i hav to read him to pass all my examinations from school to college and even for post graduation purpose. While i realy don’t agree with gandhian idea of ‘passive resistance’ (believe me, most young indians don’t) bcoz its quite impractical that somebody keeps hitting me and i keep on providing them my ass then finishing it once and for all. He also didnt help a famous martyr SHAHEED BHAGAT SINGH, from skipping the death sentence the british gave, bcoz he thought that if he protects the guerrilla rebels then his non-violance thing won’t sell and more, he wanted to be the only indian hero of freedom moment. Anyways but as per my textual knowledge about him- gandhi was a homophobe as in one of his books about indian culture and sanskara he wrote- ” its the duty of schools to see that their young wards stay away from anti-social activities like drugs, womanizing and same-sex (SAM-LENGIK in hindi)”. So if somebody says he was a homo himself then i won’t be surprised bcoz he was a huge public figure and also a guru on hindu spiritual and cultural matters so obviously he had to hide his natural instincts. Homosexuality is still very very complex matter in india even though same-sex marriages are legalised. Public figures still cannot be open about it. Few ‘male’ designers and directors are there but no one else, specialy not a female public personality. So i can understand gandhi’s delimma. Recently a butch-femme lez couple of Gujarat was seperated forcibally by the in-laws of the femme one and the butch is now on the verge of suicide as nobody is helping her get her ‘wife’ back, except for few community ppl. So its like that in india, all laws on paper and not in practice coz gays and lesbians are still killing themselves in loads in india and their suicides aren’t even reported by national media. Even i tried killing myself two times but failed. Hope i succeed third time. Anyways, the book shall never be available in gujarat. Hope it were, coz then we realy would have something like ‘visibility’.

    • laal: i think you need to go back and re-read the history of India right from the beginning then just last 50 years.

      On Gandhi: His personal life is his business and we know him as a leader and concentrate only on the aspect which matters and not on the rubbish which some author wrote somewhere.
      But like what Gandhi believed, this needs to be handled with peace as he would have.

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