Gandhi, or at least a slice of Gandhi, now has a price tag.
$1.28 million to be precise. That’s what the Indian government is coughing up to get its hands on forty years of documents, telegrams and letters between the Mahatma and Hermann Kallenbach, the German Jewish bodybuilder and lifelong friend.
The government insists this is not hush money. They didn’t rush to prevent an auction at Sotheby’s because they were afraid of what was in those documents. “We already have part of the collection,” Sanjiv Mittal, a senior official at the India’s Ministry of Culture told the media. “The idea was to fill the gap.”
Of course, such alacrity raises eyebrows given that the government is afflicted with paralysis on every other front. The Hindustan Times writes that it was unusual because the government, as a matter of policy, does not participate in auctions. The collections will end up in the National Archives - both a place to research facts and a place to bury them. And the controversy around Great Soul, the Joseph Lelyveld book from last year, is still fresh in our prurient minds – exactly how close was the Father of the Nation to his bodybuilder buddy. Lelyveld’s book was actually an appreciation of Gandhi, it was a Wall Street Journal review that was the hit-job gleefully zeroing in on the bits about the portrait on the nightstand and the vaseline and cotton wool memories.
That book was banned in Gujarat by the Narendra Modi government which suddenly emerged as Gandhi’s unlikely knight in shining armour. Modi probably would have had no problem with a book that tried to puncture the halo around Gandhi (this one did not). But we are squeamish about sex. We don’t want to think about our parents having sex. We certainly don’t want to think about the Father of the Nation doing the dirty. Especially with a man.
But the irony is Gandhi’s sex life is the least of the Mahatma’s dirty laundry. That’s what makes the Kallenbach letters so tantalizing especially since Gandhi burned the letters he had. Gandhi might have shared with an “outsider” like Kallenbach what he would not with some of his closest associates in the Congress. The letters between Gandhi and Kallenbach, because of the length of the correspondence and the unusual relationship between the two, could actually give us a deeper sense of the enormous contradiction that Gandhi was, a contradiction that we have sandpapered away by turning him into an avenue, a postage stamp, a currency note – anything but a man.
A recent article by Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books gives us some sense about that other more complicated Gandhi. One hates to call him the “real” Gandhi because that sounds so binary as if we could hold Gandhi up to the light like the currency note that bears his image and spot the watermark that tells the original from the fakes.