Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gays and Mahatmas Not Allowed (and women don't exist)

There's been a lot of hoohaa about this book:

Joseph Lelyveld is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. To be precise, he won the Pulitzer in 1986 for Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, which Amazon USA tells me is an examination of South Africa's racial policies in a (very) critical light. Lelyveld was foreign correspondent for The New York Times, stationed at Johanesburg, at this point - and apartheid in South Africa continued till 1993.

Five minutes of Wikipedia and Google, ladies.

Those of us who've been indoctrinated in the Gandhian fairy tale - which removes much from the grittier, uglier, more human and courageous story - will remember that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi went to South Africa in his early twenties. Any biography of the man will cover this period, and I daresay Lelyveld looked at this period with an especial interest, or at least a more educated interest, steeped as he had been in South African culture for however many years. (I'm going to throw in Nelson Mandela here, and suggest that South Africa is where Lelyveld access Gandhi for himself in the first place.)

Anyway. Lelyveld writes his book, publishes it, and the Daily Mail gets hold of it. Wikipedia describes The Daily Mail as a "middle market tabloid", which is code for "sensationalist stuff written mostly for entertainment value rather than information sharing or truth seeking".

As far as I can make out, it was The Daily Mail which first decided that Great Soul chronicled Gandhi's love affair with Hermann Kallenbach, his racism, and his lifelong bisexuality, though generally reports finger both the US and UK newspapers without naming any.

You should read the entire article, because it is interesting in a certain way, but here are some excerpts, included ere because they are BEAUTIFULLY funny:

At the age of 13 Gandhi had been married to 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji, but after four children together they split in 1908 so he could be with Kallenbach...
...Although it is not clear why, Gandhi wrote that vaseline and cotton wool were a ‘constant reminder’ of Kallenbach....
...As late as 1933 he wrote a letter telling of his unending desire and branding his ex-wife ‘the most venomous woman I have met’.
I'm being very mean to The Daily Mail here, and I would apologise if the image of the venomous Kasturba Gandhi, evil hag, ex-wife who for some reason still tagged along with the Mahatma, was not dancing around in my head.

In today's patchily enlightened world, it is a big deal with Mahatma Gandhi gets "branded" bisexual. The Maharashtra and Guajarat governments have banned the books*. Lelyveld is getting not-so-veiled death threats.

The book hasn't even been released in India yet!

So, with absolutely nothing to go on, it's hard for us to be sure if Gandhi did in fact have a torrid romance with Kallenbach. Gandhi did tend to write extraordinarily emotional, frighteningly frank letters. This man did not hide his vulnerabilities. (Though apparently he hid his male lover? Or didn't make a big deal about him, the only time Gandhi downplayed someone important to him?) He wrote of love, of connection, of yearning. During his lifetime people were throwing scandalised fits at this business of sleeping with naked young women - because he did it all where people could see, and discuss. He presented it as a philosophical principle of living. (Some people, I am sure, were throwing fits at the business of sleeping with naked young women and not having sex with them. Such a waste!) We're still having to read all about his sex life, alleged or otherwise, decades after his death. A mere letter of love is not enough of a tell-tale for an affair. So we shall put aside this issue and move on to actual questions of interest to us.

(This is an article that seems to summarise reviews rather than have anything of its own to say; it's much more informative than I expected it to be.)

Do we want Gandhi to have been bisexual? (If you hate the term/category, rephrase that as "Do you want Gandhi to have had homosexual/homoromantic relationships?") Do we, as LGBTIQ people, as a collective formulating our own icons and writings and histories and cultures (and integrating at will into mainstream society), want Gandhi the man on our team?

You know, he has never struck me as a very happy man. He inherited, adapted and refined a strong set of values from his parents and in general from his childhood environment, and seems to have been the sort of child who took badly to having to hide things, to not earning his parents' love and respect. Just look through the chapter headings of his autobiography, especially in the first two sections. This is not a man who is proud of his younger self, and I have always personally felt like those younger failings drove him farther than any positive ambitions for his Self did. He was shamed of his youthful sexual drives, he was ashamed of his lies, his thefts, his small betrayals of his father. (And of course, that last, horrible one.)

In a time when homosexual activity was a crime, was socially condemned, was considered wrong - the Manusmriti is not fond of it either, so we can't wave around Hindu accepting happiness - for Gandhi to have desired, wanted, loved men would have just one more thing for him to be ashamed. He'd have done a fairly decent job of hiding it, too - or at least, everyone around it would have done it for him. To be so dishonest - I can't see him being happy with that. I can see him being more ashamed, more disgusted. One more canker in his already abraded soul.

And really? Really? Gandhi was an amazing man, yes, and a strong personality, yes, but he was married (which for me complicates things) and celibate in the most tortuous way possible. He was a skinny man who kept starving himself. His fashion sense was non-existent and his glasses were dorky. He was always hanging around with other people, not having sex, discussing matters of "greater import". If you weren't his minion, you were both at loggerheads. He did a lot of walking, talking, arguing. He'd travel to England and not bring back any souvenirs.

If this man was bisexual, he didn't live as bisexual, he didn't express love physically and was so wrapped up in his own personal goals he had very little time for other people's. (Jinnah and Ambedkar had some very valid reasons for wanting a separate state, quotas, reservations, what have you.) People either bent to his way of life or they left.

I'm not running around screaming Gandhi is bad and anti-gay! Some of the flaws we point out now were part and parcel of the force, the natural charisma of the man. These have led to some very good things, some very beautiful things. And homosexuality was, in many ways of necessity, an invisible absence in colonial society, so the fact that I can't find him saying anything about homosexuality at all tells me he was just too busy to ferret out new things to take care of.

Mind you, I am so going to read that book.

[Edited to add clarity] SO TO VEER OFF ON A TANGENT:

In all this hoohaa about the desecration of Gandhi's memory, no one speaks about the women in his except as vehicles for his celibate-sexual antics. A (male) friend who read this post told me he thought that was perfectly valid. But it does make me wonder. If we recast a man as queer, we need to address the people around him, recast their relationships with him. Not much. There's no need for venom. But just a little. Don't we? [/edit to add clarity]

What woman do we know, which Indian historical figure, would create nearly as much controversy if someone did hir research and declared her gay? Or "really" a man? Are there any (female) historical figures we'd like on the team? (Many of my arguments re: Gandhi do not apply!) It seems like every second historic male is declared gay, repressed or a pervert these days. Represent, people, I want us wymmyns to have some love too!

(What did Kasturba do when Mohandas was apparently cavorting around with his paramour? Stay at home and feed the children?)

Why do we examine, so very closely, the sexual relationships of our historic men, while it seems like our women get, at most, called a "slut" and confined to boring extra-marital heteronormativity? Why do angry Hindus (male!) stop at "Sita is sitting on a monkey's tail and masturbating, and this makes me angry!" without going farther to "Sita's only contact at that point was with Raavana's demoness minions and THEY GOT IT ON and this makes me angry?"

I've run out of thoughts to think.

* This paragraph was edited to remove an egregious error.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Blogger, why have you fucked with my formatting? Do you not love me anymore?