Was Gandhi Queer?

A new biography of Gandhi that examines the passionate love the man revered by India as Bapu, the “father of the nation,” had for a German bodybuilder has caused an international furor.

Politicians who have not read the just-published book have already banned it in parts of India or moved to do so after sensationalistic headlines in US and UK newspapers claimed the book says Gandhi was gay.

The State Assembly of Gujarat (with a population of more than 50 million), where Gandhi was born, voted unanimously to ban the book immediately after the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, said it “deserves to be despised.” Its publication “shall not be tolerated under any circumstances,” Modi declared, according to the Associated Press.

Other Indian states are “keen to follow suit,” the Christian Science reported. Leading politicians in the state of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital, Mumbai, have also called for banning the book. “The government should invoke a law to severely punish anyone who tarnishes the image of the father of the nation,” a spokesman for that state’s Congress Party said, the AP wrote.

These calls for censorship came after newspapers in India ran accounts of the book based on American and British articles, like the one in the UK’s Daily Mail, a scandal-mongering tabloid owned by Viscount Rothermere that is Britain’s second-largest newspaper, whose banner headline screamed, “GANDHI LEFT HIS WIFE TO LIVE WITH A MALE LOVER, NEW BOOK CLAIMS.”

“Book Claims Gandhi Was In Love With a Jewish Bodybuilder,” headlined New York’s Jewish Daily Forward.

Other Indian papers were inspired by ultra-conservative British historian Andrew Roberts’ scathing review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, which averred that Gandhi had a same-sex relationship that made him a “sexual weirdo.” The Mumbai Mirror, the largest newspaper in that city of nearly 13 million, ran a front page story under the headline “Book claims German man was Gandhi’s secret love,” and quoted exactly the same passages as Roberts had.

In Roberts’ telling, the book not only shows that Gandhi had a homosexual affair but also portrays him as a “racist.” This is a strange accusation indeed, coming from a man who is himself a racist, according to “White Man for the Job,” a revealing 2007 portrait of Roberts in the New Republic written by out gay British journalist Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent, a UK daily.

“Roberts describes himself as ‘extremely right wing’ and ‘a reactionary,’” Hari reported, “and, in Great Britain, the 44-year-old has long been regarded as a caricature of a caricature of the old imperial historians… Roberts’s latest work — “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900” — …presents [George W.] Bush as the logical successor to Churchill — only Bush is, of course, even better.” Roberts even lunched with Bush and Dick Cheney for three hours, and had a meeting alone with Bush in the Oval Office.

In his “History,” according to Hari, Roberts “advises Bush to embrace the idea of the United States as a civilizing empire ruling the world: the white man’s burden in the White House,” and “even blames the victims of concentration camps for their own deaths.”

Considering the source, using articles that filched from Roberts’ distorted review as the basis for censorship in India is, to say the least, bizarre. Ranjit Hoskote, a writer and general secretary of PEN India, which fights for free expression and condemned the ban, said: “You can’t cite a worse example of third-hand reportage and comment” than the Indian press accounts of the book, adding: “How can you ban a book you haven’t read?”

The author of the book — “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India” — is Joseph Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize winner for an earlier book on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and a veteran of four decades with the New York Times, where he served as executive editor from 1994 to 2001. His interest in Gandhi was inspired by his stints as a reporter in both India and South Africa.

What, exactly, does Lelyveld’s book say about Gandhi’s love relationship with a man, a portrayal that has sparked so much controversy and one of critical interest to this newspaper’s readers?

Born in 1869, Mahatma Gandhi left India in 1888 to train for the law at London’s Inner Temple, and in 1893 sailed to South Africa on behalf of Muslim clients there. Within a year, he became head of the Natal Indian Congress, which represented the racially oppressed minority of Indians in South Africa. After first setting up in Durban, in 1903 he moved his law practice to Johannesburg and launched a weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion.

During his Johannesburg period, Lelyveld writes, Gandhi’s closest associates, his “surrogate kin,” were not Indians but “Westerners, mostly nonobservant Jews, who like Gandhi had dipped into the murky waters of Theosophy,” a worldwide religious movement of the era that involved a good measure of mysticism. In 1904, he made the acquaintance of Hermann Kallenbach, two years his junior, a successful architect and lifelong bachelor who had been raised and educated in East Prussia before emigrating to South Africa in 1895 at the age of 24.

Kallenbach was also a gymnast and bodybuilder who, as Gandhi later boasted, “received physical training at the hands of Sandow,” who like Kallenbach was from the East Prussian city of Königsberg. Turned into an international star by New York showman Flo Ziegfeld, Sandow — whose act was “a form of male striptease” — was the “overdeveloped strongman who was the international pinup, the precursor of Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwarznegger (becoming enough of a household name to pop several times into Leopold Bloom’s mind in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’),” as Lelyveld puts it.

By this time, Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (usually translated as “truth force,” embodying nonviolent civil disobedience as the strategy to resist “evil” and win complete human equality and social justice) was already well-defined, and in long talks with Gandhi, Kallenbach, who also shared with Gandhi a strong interest in diet fads and vegetarianism, quickly became his disciple… and ultimately the great love of his life. In 1907, Kallenbach moved in with Gandhi.

Lelyveld opens his section on the Kallenbach-Gandhi relationship by approvingly quoting noted contemporary Indian Gandhi scholar Tridip Subrad’s declaration to him: “They were a couple.” Whenever they were apart, they sustained a frequent and intense correspondence.

Unfortunately, only half of their letters survive today; Gandhi systematically destroyed all of what he described as Kallenbach’s ”logical and charming love notes” to him. Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach, however, were put up for auction decades after the death of the two men, and were eventually acquired by the National Archives of India.

“Most recent Gandhi studies tend to deal with them warily, if at all,” Lelyveld writes of these letters; he is the first to mine them fully.

Lelyveld bends over backwards to avoid labeling the couple’s relationship as explicitly homosexual, excusing Gandhi’s burning of Kallenbach’s letters by asserting Gandhi was simply “honoring his friend’s wish that they be seen by no other eyes.”

However, the heterosexual Timesman overlooks an explanation that would occur to any educated queer: homosexuality was a severely punished crime in those days, not only in England but in its current and former colonies, to which the Crown’s laws against same-sex relations were exported and imposed. This is something of which Gandhi, as an able, British-educated lawyer, could hardly have been unaware. The trials and fateful imprisonment at hard labor of Oscar Wilde, which created a worldwide sensation — especially in the Empire’s far-flung corners, where witch-hunts often followed — took place just two years after Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa, then still under London’s thumb.

Since Gandhi had already been arrested numerous times and knew he was subject to arrest again at any moment by the time his relationship with Kallenbach was full-blown, he must have feared that his papers, including Kallenbach’s letters, might be seized, and perhaps used to instigate criminal charges against him and his love object, as well as to discredit the satyagraha movement against South Africa’s racist laws and the penurious indentured servitude in which most Indian workers were kept under penalty of jail and/ or flogging.

Lelyveld carefully avoids even mentioning the possibility that this was at the heart of Gandhi’s desire for utmost discretion.

If one judges by Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach, however, the architect’s writings to his “Jewish soulmate,” as Lelyveld calls the lawyer-activist-philosopher, were likely incendiary, given the times.

In a letter written from a London hotel during a trip to lobby British authorities in 1909, for example, Gandhi’s infatuation with Kallenbach is clear: “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite the bed.” Cotton wool and Vaseline, he says, “are a constant reminder.” The point of his observations, Gandhi goes on, “is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”

Here, Lelyveld clearly strains to explain away any homosexual implication in the references to Vaseline and “possession of my body” by writing the “most plausible guesses” about their meaning “may” have to do with the enemas and massages to which Gandhi took frequent recourse. For queer readers — and, let’s face it, many, many others — however, a quite different use for the Vaseline will jump immediately to mind.

Two years later, “in a mock-serious agreement for his friend to sign, using the teasing pet names” they habitually employed in their letters (“Upper House” for Gandhi, “Lower House” for Kallenbach), Gandhi makes his love-object promise not to “look lustfully upon any woman” and “not to contract any marriage tie during [my] absence.” The two “Houses” then pledge “more love, and yet more love… such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.”

There’s more of this sort of thing, including references to Kallenbach’s intense jealousy of rivals for Gandhi’s affections. When Kallenbach is “thrown off-balance” by Gandhi’s newfound fondness for a British clergyman, Charles F. Andrews, Gandhi, in a letter, reassures him, “Though I love and almost adore Andrews so, I would not exchange you for him. You still remain the dearest and nearest to me… I know that in my lonely journey through the world, you will be the last (if even that) to say good-bye to me. What right had I to expect so much from you?”

And then, three months before Gandhi leaves South Africa, he writes to Kallenbach, “You will always be you and you alone to me. I told you you will have to desert me and not I you.” In fact, Gandhi intended that the architect accompany him to India and live with him there, and the architect had been studying Hindi in preparation for the move.

But World War I broke out as they were about to leave, dividing the two inseparables, for Kallenbach, as a German citizen, was subject to internment. “Gandhi sent off letters to Pretoria, New Delhi, and Whitehall, searching for a chink in a bureaucratic wall that threatened to keep him from realizing his dream of having the Jewish architect at his side in India,” Lelyveld writes. “No one was willing or able to authorize a German passport-holder to take up residence there in wartime… Gandhi delayed his own departure, but still the door stayed slammed. Eventually, Kallenbach was detained in a camp for enemy aliens on the Isle of Man, only to be returned to East Prussia in a prisoner swap in 1917.”

After the war, the men resumed their correspondence, with Gandhi faithfully writing every week, frequently imploring his friend to rejoin him in India. But Kallenbach eventually fled an impoverished post-war Germany to return to Johannesburg, “where he soon re-established himself in the comfortable life of a big-time property developer.” The two men would not meet again until 1937, when Kallenbach finally went to visit Gandhi, but stayed only for several months.

Nowhere in the book does Lelyveld say that Gandhi was gay or bisexual, instead going to remarkable lengths to portray the love between the two soulmates as purely platonic. And, since the controversy over his book broke out, the author has been quite defensive on this point: “The book does not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual,” Lelyveld wrote in an email to AP. “It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. This is not news.”

But, good reporter that he is, Lelyveld cannot avoid countering one scholar’s comment that their relationship was merely “homoerotic” by noting, “The conclusions passed on by word of mouth in South Africa’s small Indian community were sometimes less nuanced. It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man.”

On the controversy over Lelyveld’s book, Andrew Sullivan, writing for the Atlantic, dismissed the lack of hard evidence irrefutably confirming the two men’s sexual coupling (just as there is none for Abraham Lincoln, whose same-sex orientation is increasingly being accepted by mainstream historians — see this reporter’s September 1, 2010 Gay City News article “Forget Mehlman, What About Lincoln?”). Sullivan’s telling comment: “Homosexuality is a sexual and emotional orientation to members of the same gender. It’s the emotion that situates the sex, and the emotion that is, to my mind, the deeper reality. Gay men have had sex with women for millennia (me too!) but that doesn’t make them straight or bi.” And, despite his four children, Gandhi’s extreme, even violent, repugnance for the act of male-female copulation is a recurring theme in his writings and speech.

Gandhi did take the pledge of brahmacharya, or celibacy, in 1906 — but the Catholic Church has seen untold numbers of actively homosexual priests who’ve taken the same vow, and John Paul II was the first straight pope in 120 years!

I’ve always preferred the word “queer” to “gay” because it encompasses all the wide varieties and degrees of same-sex attraction and sexual difference from heterosexuality. And after reading Lelyveld’s account, it’s quite difficult not to apply that word to India’s — and the world’s — “Great Soul.”

Complete Information:



By Joseph Lelyveld


$28.95; 425 pages