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.
The conundrum of Gandhi for us is not he was a mass of contradictions. That we know. We know his views of celibacy. We know his views on modern medicine. He wrote that railways spread the bubonic plague and machinery was a “great sin.” We know that the apostle of non-violence volunteered for active service and tried to recruit troops from Bihar for the bloodbath in Flanders in 1918. He called off his civil disobedience movement after the killings at the Chauri Chaura police station but was perfectly willing to say, in 1942, that “rivers of blood” might be the “price of freedom.”
The uncomfortable truth for us is that we cannot just pretend that the inconsistencies of Gandhi’s positions were just milestones on his own road to spiritual evolution. Gandhi saw no inconsistency in his many U-turns because he saw himself as a “vessel of divine intention”. As Anderson writes:
Truth was not an objective value – correspondence to reality, or even (in a weaker version) common agreement – but simply what he subjectively felt at any given time. ‘It has been my experience,’ he wrote, ‘that I am always true from my point of view.’
...His religious belief in himself was rock-like, impervious to doubt or objection, guaranteeing in the final resort that all he said, no matter how apparently contradictory, formed a single bloc of truth, as so many scattered words of God.
Gandhi said that since he was called "Great Soul" he might as well endorse Emerson's saying that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." We who have made him the Father of the Nation must live with mischief unleashed by those little hobgoblins. Therefore we focus on the fact that he thought untouchability was an odious sin and drew the untouchables to him as God’s people. We remember that he threatened to fast unto death when the British considered giving the untouchables the right to their own electorate. Of course, he was worried that that was just part of the Empire’s divide and rule arithmetic and an attack on the reputation of Hinduism. But we gloss over the more inconvenient truth as Anderson points out.
Gandhi, though he had long condemned Untouchability as odious, had never taken any drastic political action against it: sin it might be, but not sufficiently mortal to warrant a fast unto death. Granting Untouchables their own rolls was another matter. Against that he would put his life on the line.
On every issue - Islam, untouchables, caste, sex, even violence – Gandhi was literally an experiment with truth. (Read Anderson’s full essay here to get the full scope of his arguments.)
But we cannot really take on those contradictions about the Father of the Nation without having to address them within ourselves. Anderson says Gandhi’s achievements came at a huge cost to the cause which he served. How steep was that cost? We know no way to wrestle with that question without appearing to challenge the greatness of Gandhi. So far better to just change the topic - did he or didn’t he do it with that bodybuilder? That becomes the million dollar question.
Or these days, some would say, it is the 1.28 million dollar question.