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In our pages: the controversial Gandhi biography 'Great Soul'

April 13, 2011 |  2:36 pm

In Wednesday's L.A. Times, Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Great Soul," the controversial biography of Mohandas Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld. The book was banned in the Indian state of Gujarat, which understood its discussion of Gandhi's close relationship with a German man, Hermann Kallenbach, to indicate Gandhi was bisexual.

"How completely you have taken possession of my body," Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach in a letter included in the new biography. "This is slavery with a vengeance." Lelyveld has tried to explain that the letter has been taken out of context. "I do not allege that Gandhi is a racist or bisexual in 'Great Soul,'" he told the Times of India. "The word 'bisexual' nowhere appears in the book."

In our review, Kirsch writes, "Lelyveld has denied that he meant to characterize them as lovers, and his book quotes one Gandhi scholar to the effect that their relationship was '''clearly homoerotic' rather than homosexual." Still, it is a bit shocking to come across a brief discussion of the possible uses of Vaseline in this otherwise sober and restrained work." He continues:

Lelyveld, a former editor of the New York Times as well as a foreign correspondent for the paper, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the book "Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White" (1985). He spent time as a correspondent in South Africa, where Gandhi started out as a callow 23-year-old "briefless lawyer," and India, where Gandhi arrived at age 44 as a political figure of influence and consequence and where he was dubbed a mahatma ("great soul") by the poet Rabindranath Tagore.

"Gandhi kept changing, experiencing a new epiphany every two years or so," writes Lelyveld, "each representing a milestone on the path he was blazing for himself." He drifted away from his family and dressed in the garb of a Hindu holy man, "but he would always be the opposite of a dropout." Rather, Gandhi variously reincarnated as a "[s]age, spokesman, pamphleteer, agitator, seer, pilgrim, dietitian, nurse and scold." Indeed, he spoke of himself as "a scavenger, a spinner, a weaver, a farmer and a laborer") as a way of declaring his disdain for distinctions based on color, class or caste.

Lelyveld wants us to understand Gandhi as a radical and a revolutionary in the context of his time and place even if "the political Gandhi" tends to be eclipsed by "the religious Gandhi."

Read the rest of the review here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. Credit: Associated Press Photos