Joseph Lelyveld’s bookThe Great Soul has, not surprisingly, created great consternation in India. The Government of Gujarat has banned it, strange since neither the party in power nor the chief minister are particularly known for their admiration of the Mahatma. The Government of Maharashtra too, loath to miss out on any opportunity to prove its ‘loyalty’ to the memory of the ‘Father of the Nation’, proposed to follow suit. Apparantly, liberal outcry and (possibly) latent wisdom prevailed. The Union Law Minister further added to the cauldron by proposing that the government was considering a law that would criminalize any attempt at providing an alternative reading of Gandhi at variance with, one presumes, an officially sanctified version, somewhat on the lines of an insult to the national flag. Fortunately, this ill-advised attempt was given a quick burial.
Beyond the official responses, there has been a spate of writing both about the book (which, incidentally, few have read) and on how we respond to Gandhi, his memory, characterization and so on. Hopefully, in an era marked by intolerance and knee-jerk responses, the ongoing debate will help construct a more nuanced understanding of our public discourse, possibly help our many moulders of public opinion to become less judgemental and more accommodative of differences of interpretation.
As a contribution to the ongoing debate, we present below two short comments.
Reading Gandhi with Lelyveld
IN 1962, Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science wrote a classic book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this monograph he made a startling series of suggestions, including the fact that science moves by gestalts and that the movement from one gestalt to another is neither rational nor continuous. Kuhn called these gestalts paradigms. Paradigms created normal science and the regimes of normal science were captured in textbooks. Kuhn claimed that because they operated under a single paradigm, sciences could employ textbooks. The humanities and social science, he observed, lived off texts, which they read and re-read. This created a world were Plato was as significant as Wittgenstein, but science had to choose between Aristotle and Einstein.
The juxtaposition of text and textbook sets the problematic for the social sciences. Reading a text becomes a primary form of literacy. In the act of reading, a classic text yields commentaries. So the ecology of humanities has classics surrounded by a web of commentaries. To paraphrase, the classic philosophers as originals were surrounded by professors of philosophy. Commentary had its own demands. One needed a sense of language, of rhetoric, to understand the act of reading. Reading adds value, insight and clarification to the original text. So Kojeve read Hegel, Arendt read Heidegger, Lenin read Marx, each adding something new, each sustaining the old.
Gandhi’s work provides a classic set of texts running to over a hundred volumes. But the hermeneutics of Gandhi, its creativity and freedom, has been dogged by sets of problems. First, there was the problem of language. It demanded expert translators who could annotate the text and context of each major work. The second problem was what one calls the museumizing of Gandhi. This took two forms. One was an embalming of Gandhi by his followers who read his words literally. There was also the government who wished to create an official Gandhi, a sanitized text which was politically correct and policed controversies which were painful and difficult to confront. Consider Joseph Lelyveld’s book The Great Soul, which is about the least known period of Gandhi’s life – South Africa.
South Africa is a bit of a black box in Gandhi’s life. Life under apartheid must have been difficult and reducing Gandhi’s effort to boy scout narratives can be misleading. South Africa was the pupil stage in Gandhi’s life. It is here that he forged the tools which disrupted an empire. What one forgets is that Gandhi’s laboratory was two-fold. He sought to construct the ashram as a new life of the mind and second, his body became the text. The body became a site for all kinds of experiments. Gandhi experimented with food, sex, technology, dress, livelihood, prayer, walking. The body became a collection of transformations. By this period, the wog in him was changing into an ascetic. The transition was not easy. It cannot be presented as a before-after picture, a gestalt switch. It was slow ritual process articulated with the honesty of a confessional. It is out of the experiments on the body that he gradually forged his new body politic. To brush them under the table demeans Gandhi.
Lelyveld tells it like it is, quoting letters. His juxtaposition of events, letters, reveals to us that we know little about the South Africa period. It also points out that the Gandhian experiments on the body deserve a more detailed look. Let us realize this man was an encyclopedia of insights, forays and experiments into his body. Many of them have yet to be understood. While a lot has been made about his preoccupation with cooking and sexuality, there is, for instance, little about a Gandhian theory of walking. The semiotics of walking is so central to Gandhi’s theory of the city, to his sense of protest. One would like to know more about how his ideas of prayer, fasting, walking, satyagraha, brahmacharya wove together. In fact a Gandhian history of the body is still to be written. This kind of study also needs to be periodized. The Hindu idea of the body, the impact of the theosophist body has to be worked out.
Gandhi’s encounter with theosophists like Henry Polak, Edward Maitland, Anne Kingsford provide one chapter of his experiments. Gandhi’s idea of vegetarianism, his attempts to understand naturopaths like Kuhne has a different tonality to his encounters with the authoritarian body of apartheid. It is here that Gandhi battles with race and Lelyveld is right in suggesting that there is an ambivalence about his notes on race. Gandhi realizes he is jailed with the kaffirs. One can say he objected to being labelled black. One could also say that apartheid like most racial theories had colour classifications. Such classifications elaborated degrees of freedom which specified life chances. Maybe as a brown man he was clerically even correct in claiming his entitlements under race. The text can be read in many ways and the openness of the text has to be recognized. Such openness also recognizes that Gandhi was growing, changing. The photographs suggest the beginning of an inner alchemy, theories and experiments on the body affecting his idea of the body politic. The experiments on the body led to other discussions on labour, history, dignity. There is a struggle with language and an honesty we must acknowledge. In telling it ‘like it is’, the reporter in Lelyveld opens us to the problems of language.
The letters of Gandhi like his autobiography are experiments in candidness and transparency. Gandhi was open about his relationships and there is a need to capture the language, the metaphors, the literal transparency with which he wrote about his relationships. His friendship with Herman Kallenbach demands such an understanding.
Kallenbach was a colourful figure, quintessentially Prussian in his preoccupation with gymnastics, body building. Gandhi in fact boasted that Kallenbach received physical training from Eugene Sandow. Sandow is a literal and metaphorical presence in any history of the body. Sandow was the stuff of legend, a reinvention of Greek masculinity. He made bodybuilding respectable, creating out of it a philosophy, a technique, a way of life. When one reads the catalogues now they have a sense of the comic book and of caricature, but bodybuilding was a serious preoccupation, even a career. His book was titled The Gospel of Strength. It was priced at one shilling and published in Melbourne. In it he articulated a theory of physical culture which had pureness and simplicity, and it argued for the development of the body along ‘natural lines of the wonderful combination of muscles that the creator had given to man and woman.’ The model is the legendary Hercules.
The comic book contrast between Kallenbach as a devotee of Sandow, and Gandhi seeking the ascetic body has to be confronted. It is a friendship where these different characters are continuously swapping, contrasting recipes about the body. One wishes Lelyveld had published a page from Sandow’s catalogue. It might have restored perspective and helped us understand the puzzlement and consternation his community might have felt.
Lelyveld in the beginning refers to them as ‘a couple’. This is bad tactics in the Victorian world of Gandhi. The word couple can imply many things. It can refer to closeness, to intimacy. They must have looked like an odd pair even without conveying any sense of scandal. Here are two people exploring the limits and possibilities of the body; two experimentalists heading in different directions, often comparing notes. It must have been a heady relationship with the tiny Gandhi dominating the awesome Kallenbach. There is a picture of Kallenbach in an Indian dress. He looks like a Prussian Gaffar Khan. Let us be clear. Scandal always haunts such a relationship, but creativity lies in balancing possibility and constraint. Friendship and harmony are linked to that balance.
Their descriptions of themselves are colourful. Gandhi dubs himself as ‘upper house’ to Kallenbach’s ‘lower house’. The bicameral body is also a definition of their relationship between the physical and the moral, the spiritual and the routine. Reading it, one feels that dissenters and eccentrics do not make for easy reading. But to read Lelyveld’s book as a list of insinuations is silly. Here were two people pushing the Victorian theory of the body to two different extremes. Lelyveld finally adds that Gandhi’s torso, all 108 pounds of it, would be better known than Sandow’s.
One needs to read these sections within a historical time. The search for strength that Sandow and Kallenbach pursued was miles apart from the asceticism Gandhi sought. But differences attract and a conversation of difference might convey a different pattern of similarities that might explain the quality of the friendship. Kallenbach played Gandhi’s bodyguard after the Pathan attack. In crafting the body differently, they eventually crafted a community called Phoenix Farm. It was a strange friendship, with its share of jealousies, each pursuing a different fate. If Gandhi was split between South Africa and India, Kallenbach’s destiny moved between South Africa and Israel. He was a Zionist and Gandhi’s encounters with Zionism are mediated through Kallenbach. One wishes there was more detail of the conversations they had in the long hikes across veldt.
The question one now faces is, how does one respond to a narrative like Lelyveld and the controversies that have marked the book? Often such a debate becomes a battle of character certificates with piety dominating the issue. The focus is on Lelyveld, his career, his India connections.
Lelyveld is a professional, as honest in his approach as any reader. This one chapter has been singled out for controversy while the rest of the book sits quietly. I want to read it as an open-ended book. Lelyveld as a reporter, a storyteller makes us curious about Gandhi in South Africa. Today, Phoenix Farm lies in shambles, bereft of history, shorn of its aura. Lelyveld recreates the gossip, the everydayness of the era. To discuss the book contemptuously will not do. To say, as Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s letter to a newspaper did, that ‘Lelyveld has brought to action another rare skill – denigration by insinuation and innuendo’ meets the idea of insinuation with contempt. Contempt is a form of piety. One is worried here because it comes from an outstanding man who claims that the crime of Lelyveld is an exploitation of liberal instincts. There is an impatience, another intolerance that makes me uneasy. It seems to suggest that critics may come and go, but Gandhi goes on forever. Gandhi’s place in history is not in question, but how each historical period responds to Gandhi will have to be open-ended. The grandson’s contempt has a piety I find disturbing. One wishes he had articulated his critique in detail because what is at stake is the notion of truth and toleration in two systems, in Gandhi and in liberalism. An analysis would be more open than a character certificate. One wishes that Gopal Gandhi would elaborate his discomfort in detail.
THE controversy surrounding Joseph Lelyveld’s book The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India has brought in sharp focus two aspects of the vast scholarship around Gandhi, his life, thought and politics. One, we know precious little about the Gandhi of South Africa. And two, our understanding of Gandhi’s ekadash vrata (eleven vows) remains sketchy.
From May 1892 to July 1914, Gandhi spent around twenty-two years in South Africa, barring the short interregnums when he visited India or England. Even during these periods, the South African question remained uppermost in his mind. Despite this, most biographers of Gandhi have seen this period as one of being an apprentice, of preparation, as the one which enabled Gandhibhai to become a Mahatma. For them the South African phase is a prelude to the Gandhi saga that really begins with his return to India in 1915. There are probably three major exceptions to this: Maureen Swan’s Gandhi: The South African Experience,1 Burnett Britton’s Gandhi Arrives in South Africa2 and, from the point of view of Gandhi’s religious quest, James Hunt’s Gandhi and the Non-conformists.3 These three works seek to locate Gandhi and his struggle within the social, political, economic and racial context of colonial South Africa and the role of the Asiatic communities in it. Even these works, with the limited exception of Britton’s work, do not provide an account of Gandhi the lawyer in South Africa. We know that Gandhi was the first, and for a long time the only, person of colour to be admitted to the Bar in South Africa; we also know that his legal practice, despite his attempts to belittle it, was very successful. What we do not know still is the nature of Gandhi’s intervention in the legal debates in South Africa. This lack is crucial, as it would probably allow for a better understanding of Gandhi’s legal mind and also the contribution he made in terms of widening the nature of legal and juridical space available for the struggle for rights.
The neglect of the South African years is also evident in the fact that no major account of these years exists in any major Indian language. Perhaps the sole exception is the five volume study of the satyagraha in South Africa by C.B. Dalal in Gujarati;4 which remains untranslated. Similarly, the story of the two communities that he founded in South Africa, the Phoenix Settlement and the Tolstoy Farm, begs scholarly attention. From Gandhi’s accounts and the work of Prabhudas Gandhi5 we know that these were the sites of Gandhi’s major spiritual and political experiments, as also his first attempts at establishing ashramic life, which was to become central to Gandhi’s life in India. A similar lack of attention marks our understanding of Gandhi’s closest European associates in South Africa; Michael Coates, Albert Baker, Henri and Millie Polack, Hermann Kallenbach, Sonja Schlesin remain shadowy figures.6 If the European associates remain shadowy figures, we know next to nothing about his Indian associates ranging from Dada Abdullaha, Parsi Rustomji, Thambi Naidoo and even Maganlal Gandhi. Dr. Pranjivandas Mehta, Gandhi’s early supporter and interlocutor, remains unmentioned in many biographies.7 Thus, the South African years remain little understood in their own terms.
The partial understanding of Gandhi’s experiments and their locus within the ekadash vrata is equally glaring. In this instance we cannot seek solace from the fact that for long years the South African archives remained inaccessible to many scholars. We have many Gandhis: the Gandhi of the Congress, that of swadeshi and swaraj, of the ashram, the Gandhi of constructive work, that of Harijan yatras, the dialogic Gandhi of Tagore, Ambedkar, Savarkar and Jinnah debates; the fasting Gandhi, the brahmachari Gandhi. This has without doubt sharpened our understanding of Gandhi. It has also allowed us to examine Gandhi’s location within modern India’s social, political, cultural, economic and spiritual life. Yet, despite its immense richness and depth, two aspects of Gandhi’s life elude us: Gandhi’s spiritual quest and his constructive work. Despite the wealth of biographic and historical studies, we do not have a single biography that takes Gandhi’s spiritual life as its central concern. This for a man who claimed that his desire was to see God face to face, to attain moksha, a man who claimed that his entire being was moved by this overwhelming desire. Gandhi’s much talked about experiments with brahmacharya in the sense of a quest and a mode of conduct that leads one to truth is part of his spiritual quest. Gandhi did not see them as distinct from his quest for truth and desire to attain perfect non-violence. They could not have been done without his aparigraha and asteya, and they were for him not divorced from the quest for swaraj as a mode of life when one becomes capable of ruling oneself. It is only when one places the experiments with brahmacharya in the context of the ashramic life and practices, within the rubric of the ekadash vrata which provide the philosophical frame for practice, that they emerge from the world of salacious gossip and become part of his quest to attain swaraj, non-violence, truth and hence moksha.
Alongside the modern academic writings on Gandhi there has been the ashramic scholastic tradition, which has not been given the attention it merits. Mahadev Desai, Kishorelal Mashruwala, Kaka Kalelkar, Acharya Kripalani, Manu Gandhi and Narayan Desai have all shaped this intellectual tradition. They provide modes of critical engagement and submission in equal measure. Their submission was deep, secure in faith and because of that open to possibilities of fundamental questioning. Let us remind ourselves that the most basic critique of Gandhi’s experiments of brahmacharya came from within this tradition and specifically from two of his finest interlocutors: Swami Anand and Kishorelal Mashruwala.
So long as Gandhi remains a subject of scholastic enquiry, his experiments, his politics, his dialogues and relationships would merit both examination and reinterpretation. Some of these would arouse in us deep-seated cultural anxieties, while others would lend themselves to the transient politics of the time. Our response to these will reveal as much about our political psyche than it might about Gandhi.
1. Maureen Swan, Gandhi: The South African Experience. Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1985.
2. Burnett Britton, Gandhi Arrives in South Africa. Greenleaf Books, Canton, Maine, 1999.
3. James D. Hunt, Gandhi and the Non-conformists: Encounters in South Africa. Promilla, New Delhi, 1986.
4. C.B. Dalal, Gandhiji ni Dakshin Africa Ni Ladat. Gujarat Vidyasabha, Ahmedabad, 1958.
5. Prabhudas Gandhi, Jivan Nu Parodh. Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1948.
6. Although four works to some extent further our understanding. They are: Isa Sarid and Christian Bartolf, Hermann Kallenbach: Mahatma Gandhi’s Friend in South Africa. Gandhi Information Centre, 1997; George Paxton, Sonja Schlesin: Gandhi’s South African Secretary. Pax Books, Scotland, 2006, Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi’ and His Jewish Friends. Macmillan, London, 1992 and Thomas Weber, Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor. Cambridge: 2004.
7. It is not as if Gandhi’s associates and co-workers, fellow ashramites in India have been subject to significant biographical research. Swami Anand, Kishorelal Mashurwala, Mahadev Desai, Pyarelal, Prema Kantak and Manu Gandhi remain mere props in the Gandhi story.