Book review: Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld

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      Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India
      By Joseph Lelyveld. Alfred A. Knopf, 425 pp, hardcover

      Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about Indian freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi, along comes a book that demolishes your assumptions—and raises the spectre of the mahatma having a long-term male lover.

      In Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld depicts Gandhi as a clever, well-intentioned, courageous, and sometimes domineering politician who occasionally contradicted himself.

      Lelyveld, a masterful journalist, probes deeply into Gandhi’s 21-year history as an Indian lawyer and community activist in South Africa to reveal how he came to embrace Muslim-Hindu unity and fairer treatment of the “Untouchables”.

      However, during his first two decades in South Africa, Gandhi didn’t challenge a three-pound head tax imposed on former indentured Indian labourers, who were the lowest-ranking members of his community. He only launched a campaign in 1913, after repeated criticism from an Indian newspaper editor.

      In one of the most surprising sections of Great Soul, Lelyveld presents compelling evidence that Gandhi harboured a long-lasting homoerotic attraction to Hermann Kallenbach, an East Prussian Jewish architect and bodybuilder. They lived together for several years in Johannesburg, while the Gandhi family remained outside Durban.

      In their correspondence, Gandhi and Kallenbach referred to each other affectionately as “Upper House” and “Lower House”, with Gandhi admonishing Kallenbach not to “look lustfully upon any woman”.

      “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom,” Gandhi writes in one letter from London, before adding that cotton wool and Vaseline were a constant reminder of “how completely you have taken possession of my body”.

      Following Gandhi’s return to India, he focused his greatest attention on promoting harmony between Muslims and Hindus.

      Gandhi’s priorities often troubled the great leader of the Untouchables, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and their off-and-on rivalry is covered extensively. In a superbly researched section on Gandhi’s efforts in 1925 to address discrimination in Kerala, Lelyveld chronicles how the mahatma’s moderate approach rankled those who sought a more dramatic response.

      This is no hagiography of Gandhi. Instead, Lelyveld has created a finely nuanced picture of one of the most compelling figures of the 20th century.

      It would be extremely unfortunate if the author’s revelations about the mahatma’s relationship with Kallenbach was all that this book is remembered for.

      Related article: Vancouver's gay and bisexual community should think about claiming Mahatma Gandhi as one of their own

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