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Kallenbach Letters: What If Gandhi Was Gay?

This is a cross-post from pabitraspeaks.com

MY DEAR FRIEND,

I feel like crying out to you ‘Do come  and  help  me!’  Mrs. Gandhi is again down with her swellings. She has lost all power of resistance. She weeps like a child, is ever angry with me as if I was the party  responsible for her swellings. I am over head and ears in work. This  institution  costs  me  much  trouble.  I  wish  I  had  the  time  to describe to you the troubles I am passing through. I am not dejected but I feel lonely. You know what I mean. Heaven knows what will happen. There are so many sick people on the Farm. I want hours of solitude and have not a minute of it. Do ‘buck up’ and prepare for the struggle of the spirit when you are able to come here.

I know nothing about some honour that has been conferred upon me. I have just received a letter of congratulations. More in my next.

 With love,

OLD FRIEND

{Source: From the original Gandhi-Kallenbach Correspondence, National Archives of India}

The Indian government has bought a full collection of mementos, documents and letters between Hermann Kallenbach and M.K.Gandhi from Sotheby’s in a private deal at $1.28 million, fueling  speculation of an attempt to keep the private relationship of nation’s father-head (which, some say, was homosexual or homoerotic), secret.

Gandhi and Kallenbach (last row, 2nd and 3rd from left) in Tolstoy Farm, SA in 1910. Photo: courtesy of AFP.

The long-standing friendship between the “Mahatma” and his architect/bodybuilder German-Jew friend from South Africa was first put under question by the 2011 Joseph Lelyveld book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, published by Alfred A Knopf by Random House in the US. The frank discussion about the emotional/romantic relationship between the two men immediately led to a debate between Gandhi loyalists and skeptics, despite not being published in India; the book was banned in the state of Gujarat where Gandhi was born. Ironically, this state is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has connections with a far-right Hindu nationalist outfit RSS (Rastriya Sayamsevak Sangha), whose member Nathuram Godse assassinated Gandhi.

M.K.Gandhi is one of those tragic heroes of history who are either worshipped or condemned with equal steadfastness. In 2012, his beloved country whose economy and society he dreamed to found on the self-governing rural India is on the way of development of a two-digit GDP growth, through ultra-urbanisation and consumer market. The evils of untouchability for which he fought hard (a worsening marriage was partly its price) is not completely eradicated. The ideal of uniting Hindus and Muslims as one nation and people living with justness, dignity and moral courage envisioned by Gandhi not only failed during Indian Independence but also continues: communal unrest still rigs the country. Yet in India, Gandhi is placed on a pedestal of a near sainthood – and disposed of as an ideal that is impractical to follow. This is as far as his worshipping is concerned.

For condemnation, his life’s work is severely denied credibility as India was born through a bloodbath of communal struggle with a neighboring country that was born with a theological difference. Gandhi’s satyagraha (ascetic self-rule) and civil disobedience was rejected by B.R.Ambedkar, a firm constitutionalist who sought to seek solutions of social problems from within the state.

The tragedy, from Gandhi’s point of view, was that his colleagues in the national movement either did not understand his concern with untouchability or even actively deplored it. Priests and motley shankaracharyas thought he was going too fast in his challenge to caste – and why did he not first take their permission? Communists wondered why he wanted everyone to clean their own latrines when he could be speaking of class struggle. And Congressmen in general thought Harijan work came in the way of an all-out effort for national freedom. Thus Stanley Reid, a former editor of the Times of India quotes an Indian patriot who complained in the late thirties that “Gandhi is wrapped up in the Harijan movement. He does not care a jot whether we live or die; whether we are bond or free.” {Source: Gandhi’s Ambedkar}

The book that created controversy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The iconoclastic zeal of Gandhi-skeptics was enhanced by the mainstream worshiping attitude of the nation where a neutral and human analysis of Gandhi the man was overshadowed by the dead Mahatma. So when Joseph Lelyveld decides to bring an assessment of M.K.Gandhi and his work not stripped of his human follies, an outsized attention goes to a chapter that deals with his relationship with Hermann Kallenbach in a 425-page-long book. It may not be unusual therefore to see the Indian government’s purchase of the trove of documents paying a three- to fourfold price, as remarked by Ramchandra Guha, an Indian historian who discovered these documents, from Isa Sarid, great grandniece of Hermann Kallenbach through Sotheby’s (accepting additional conditions of inviting the Israel-based Sarid family to India as state guest for three weeks) as an attempt to keep controversial information about Gandhi (feared to be harmful to his plaster saint image) from falling to private hands. But few also believe that this new archive can provide more factual information that can debunk the sexual polemic receiving media attention.

In a 2011 interview with the Press Trust of India, Lelyveld answered questions about the controversy by email. “I did not say Gandhi had a male lover. I said he lived with a man who was an architect as well as a bodybuilder for nearly four years. The letters are part of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (volume 96, to be precise) published by the Government of India. They are in the Indian National Archive. That particular volume was first published in 1994. In other words, the material I used contains no news,” Lelyveld said.

That hardly stops Andrew Roberts, who reviewed the book in the Wall Street Journal, from interpreting the relationship that Lelyveld hinted at. “As Mr. Lelyveld makes abundantly clear, Gandhi’s organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908,” Roberts wrote. A reading of the book does not make it as abundantly clear as Roberts asserts. Gandhi’s marriage, though troubled, was consummated and he sired three sons with wife Kasturba. That Gandhi left his wife for Kallenbach is unsubstantiated as well. If he had a sexual relationship with Kallenbach, it was certainly not out of his lack of manhood.

Lelyveld’s book quotes Gandhi using pet names (upper house for himself and lower house for Kallenbach, who was made to promise to Gandhi “not to look at any woman with lustful eyes”), much like lovers and referring to Vaseline as a “constant reminder” of Kallenbach that, apart from the fact that Gandhi used for enema he gave himself, can be interpreted with amorous meaning. Indian Historian Ramchandra Guha who examined the Sarid archive of documents explains that the reference to Vaseline was in the context of corns developed by the two men who walked long distance together to their office in South Africa. Rather than being homosexual, Kallenbach was “flagrantly heterosexual”, Guha said, and had a series of affairs with women. Gandhi was often trying to reform him, he said.

A review of Great Soul in The Wall Street Journal “took Joe’s tentative, guarded speculation and made it into hardened fact”, Guha said. See a report about this in Calcutta’s The Telegraph.

The review, however, cannot be completely dismissed, because Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach reveal language that is hard to believe as anything other than romantic. Most have quoted these words written by Gandhi to Kallenbach from Lelyveld’s book: “How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” Or, “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom,” he wrote to Kallenbach. “The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.” The two also pledged “more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.”

Letters from Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi show that Gandhi was wary of his wife, whom he referred to as “Mrs. Gandhi” to Kallenbach and confided to him that he was struggling not to be angry with her hysterics. However, the relationship of love and endearment of a man like Gandhi towards another man, be it Hermann Kallenbach or the Anglican Priest Charles Freer Andrews, may not be as straightforwardly interpreted as homosexual or homoerotic just by the quotes from his letters. One should also not forget the cultural difference of expressing adoration to a person of the same gender in Indian context as compared to western understanding. For example, abstinence from sex by a married man for a spiritual improvement that Gandhi felt necessary sacrifice for devoting his life for his country may seem bizarre to western analysts, whereas in India it helped Gandhi earn a social/political position of command.

As human failings of the patron saint that Gandhi was made into become matters of defence and cover-up by Gandhi loyalists and points of sharp criticism by skeptics, we sadly lose sight of the fact that Gandhi himself did everything to keep public his trepidations and failures of a very unusual life he chose, to defend his beliefs and devotion for his country.

“It was Gandhi who first put his personal life up for public scrutiny in his articles and letters, his autobiographies and his conversations with friends. It was Gandhi who drew a straight line from sexual abstinence to political non-violence, demanded that the very same Congress worker who wanted to participate in the national movement also be a sanyasi and a satyagrahi. Some four decades ago, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph wrote a clear-eyed analysis of Gandhi’s theory of the relationship between ‘self-control and political potency’. He made no secret of the truth that each day he battled as much against his own formidable appetites as he did against the powerful British Empire. Gandhi never hid the desires, dilemmas or doubts that preoccupied him, and he does not need now to be hidden from the gaze of history,” writes Ananya Vajpeyi, Assistant Professor of History at University of Massachusetts in Boston, US.

Nearing 70, Gandhi had a wet dream. The “degrading, dirty, torturing experience” was shattering, he wrote. It “made me feel as if I was hurled by God from an imaginary paradise where I had no right to be in my uncleanliness.” He was a very out-spoken saint.

So what if Gandhi was gay or had a homosexual relationship that we are speculating about? It practically changes nothing what M.K.Gandhi will be remembered for. The younger generations should see this man as a remarkable human being, not a saint that school history books feel compelled to depict him as. Every piece of information about him should be made easily accessible to everyone worldwide and let public assess the metamorphosis of a fallible human being into a political and moral force that British diplomacy had no answer for. Whether he loved a man or a woman, he loved his country, people and his ideal more with exemplary sincerity.

The more we see Gandhi with human depth as Lelyveld tried in his book, the more remarkable he will appear.

Check the interesting video below and also the comments in the Youtube page:



Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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About The Author(s)



Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

Civil Engineer

Pabitra is an amateur blogger and environment enthusiast. He has to his credit more than 100 international publications of online articles as independent reporting stories, analyses and in-depth reviews of contemporary issues. He is a contributor author in EJC and a winner of competitive blogging. Pabitra networks with writers and organizations working in the field of Environment and is adviser to Indian Knowledge Networking Platform Climate Himalaya. He writes about almost anything in his personal blog Pabitraspeaks too. Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering and a Fellow of the Institute of Engineers, India under Royal Charter. He works and lives in Kolkata, India with wife Sumana and son Diptarka.

Comments (7)

  • Michael Nagler

    Gandhi loved so intensely that it is not possible for most of us to comprehend it. He once signed a letter to Charlie Andrews, the British prelate who helped greatly but in the end did not fully understand him, “with a love that not even you can understand.” To regard this love as erotic is, I have to say, typical of the limitations in our modern, and particularly Western understanding of love. Of course, as Plato said, ALL love is “erotic” at some deep — but not the deepest — level. How we transform it, or fail to, goes far toward defining us as human beings: shall we express it at the physical level or allow it to transform into a creative force? It’s a pity we don’t understand this better — and not only for our assessment of Gandhi.

    Reply
    • Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

      Thank you Michael. I am happy that you commented on the heart of my narrative. To start with I intended to elaborate a little more on the limitation of the western understanding of love, particularly between people of same gender as this surely makes this topic controversial. I think our modern thinking (and that is undoubtedly influenced by western views) regarding friendship, adoration romance and sexuality are somewhat ‘bi-polar’ negating the different shades of human relationships in between romantic sensuality ans spiritual soul bonding. But I refrained from ding it so that Gandhi remains the center piece of my essay.
      I am happy because my narrative could still inspire a comment like you did.

      Reply
      • Giedre Steikunaite

        Giedre Steikunaite

        It would be very interesting to hear your thoughts about the limitations of our understanding of love, Pabitra. I do agree that we imprison ourselves by trying to put everything in labeled boxes (e.g., the gay/straight binary) – but I’d expand the category of “love” to “human relationships” or “feelings”, because there are so many shades of it that we haven’t even been able to make up words for. Or perhaps that’s just the same love dressed in a different robe..

        Reply
        • Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

          Gandhi preferred to use the word “love” and it appears that he used it deliberately even for his ‘male’ friends. He had a part of education in London, so we can safely presume that he knew the contextual and cultural appropriateness of the word in the western societies. To me it looks like he was making a statement by defying the relationship boundaries – facts show that he did that in many other instances.
          In retrospect, what he did almost a century ago becomes relevant in contemporary societies; in its effort to break free from out dated social memes. I hope in time we can bridge over the ‘gap’ between what we, as individuals, feel privately as love in relationships and what are prescribed as socially appropriate.
          I agree that the insight on the ‘limitations’ is an interesting debate in itself and hope to write on that in my personal blog in future.
          Thank you very much for your comment, Giedre.

          Reply
  • Michael Nagler

    Glad you liked my comment, Pabitra.

    Reply
  • ajit vadakayil

    Hi,
    Punch into google search MAHATMA GANDHI, RE-WRITING INDIAN HISTORY- VADAKAYIL.
    Know the shocking truth.
    Capt ajit vadakayil
    ..

    Reply
    • Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

      I rather enjoyed the part of your post describing your forays into South African land and ladies.
      By the way, don’t you think putting your link in the comment without a single word about the article is somewhat brass?

      Reply

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