Peek into Mahatma's million-dollar letters
By HEATHER TIMMONS
July 14: The Indian government’s $1.1-million purchase of a trove of documents and mementos from the family of a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi has raised widespread speculation about their contents and the motive behind the purchase.
The items were sold by the family of Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect who owned Tolstoy Farm, in Johannesburg, where Gandhi lived for several years. His name gained recognition after the controversy created by Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, a book published in 2011, which examines the “intimate” and “ambiguous” relationship between the two men in one chapter.
While the book never claims the men were physically intimate, it details the loving relationship they had for the four years they lived together in and around Johannesburg. During that time, the two men signed a written agreement pledging “more love, and yet more love such love as they hope the world has not yet seen”.
The book was quickly denounced by some in India and banned in Gujarat.
The historian and The Telegraph columnist Ramachandra Guha, who is writing a biography of Gandhi and who viewed the recently purchased collection of documents during a 2010 visit to Israel, said their contents will set one thing straight: the items are valuable “largely from a scholarly point of view”, he said, “except to debunk the notion that the two men had a homosexual or homoerotic relationship”.
The government’s purchase includes thousands of items, including letters from Gandhi and his sons to Kallenbach, Kallenbach’s diaries and original photographs, according to a Sotheby’s catalogue. The items were to be auctioned off, but the Indian government made a private agreement with Sotheby’s before the auction.
An already public letter from Gandhi to Kallenbach, in which the Mahatma said Vaseline was a “constant reminder” of Kallenbach, which was detailed in Great Soul, can be explained by details in the documents, Guha said — they show that the two used Vaseline on the corns they developed as they walked for many miles a day to their offices.
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.
Gandhi’s sexuality, or lack thereof, became a matter of debate after Great Soul, written by former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, was released. The nearly 400-page book “restored human depth to the Mahatma”, one reviewer said, by examining the evolution of Gandhi’s social and moral philosophy. The few pages on his friendship with Kallenbach, though, got outsized attention.
The media attention surrounding the book may have also increased the Indian government’s interest in keeping the documents from private hands.
In May 2010, in a letter to a culture ministry official, Guha detailed his review of the recently purchased papers, which were at the home of Kallenbach’s grand-niece, Isa Sarid, in Israel.
“I believe that action should immediately be taken by the Government of India to acquire these papers, lest they be auctioned by Dr Sarid and her family,” he wrote. Guha said he learned of the papers by reading an essay by James D. Hunt, an author and scholar who wrote about Gandhi’s time in London.
“Action must be taken quickly,” Guha urged the ministry official again at the end of the letter, because a “French entrepreneur” was eager to acquire the collection.
Lelyveld’s book helped multiply the price that Kallenbach’s family got for the documents by three or fourfold, Guha estimates.
The Indian government plans to keep the documents in the National Archives of India, which maintains a huge repository of material related to Gandhi, much of it available on the Internet.
Lelyveld said in an email that he had not seen the new papers. If there are new papers, “my view is that, of course, they should be in the public domain along with the earlier material”, he said.
In a 2011 interview with the Press Trust of India, Lelyveld answered questions by email about the controversy.
“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.
A review of Great Soul in The Wall Street Journal “took Joe’s tentative, guarded speculation and made it into hardened fact”, Guha said. Other news outlets reported on the review, creating a media buzz that ultimately caused the book to be banned in Gandhi’s home state.
The unnecessary controversy is being created by people who themselves are not perfect. 'Great Soul' is nothing but the chief publicity. Everything is being done to make a quick buck. Not good.