MUMBAI, India >> A state in western India banned Pulitzer-Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld’s new book about Mahatma Gandhi on Wednesday after reviews saying it hints that the father of India’s independence had a homosexual relationship. The author says his work is being misinterpreted.
More bans have been proposed in India, where homosexuality was illegal until 2009 and still carries social stigma.
Gujarat’s state assembly voted unanimously Wednesday to immediately ban “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India.”
The furor was sparked by local media reports, based on early reviews out of the U.S. and U.K., some of which emphasized passages in the book suggesting Gandhi had an intimate relationship with a German man named Hermann Kallenbach.
“Great Soul” has not yet been released in India, so few here have actually read Lelyveld’s writings.
“The book does not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual,” Lelyveld wrote in an email. “It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. This is not news.”
He noted that his book — which is said is about Gandhi’s struggle for social justice and the evolution of his social values — is available both in the U.S. and as an e-book download.
“It should not be hard for anyone to determine what it actually says,” Lelyveld wrote. “ 1/4 It’s a pious hope, but I’d say someone might take the trouble to look at it before it’s banned.”
Several reviews of “Great Soul” detailed its sections on Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Roberts said that the only portrait on the mantelpiece opposite Gandhi’s bed was of Kallenbach.
“How completely you have taken possession of my body,” reads one widely quoted letter from Gandhi to Kallenbach. “This is slavery with a vengeance.”
Britain’s Daily Mail ran an article under the blaring headline: “Gandhi ’left his wife to live with a male lover’ new book claims.”
The Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday ran a front page story under the headline “Book claims German man was Gandhi’s secret love,” which quoted the same passages as Roberts.
Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst who has written about Gandhi’s sexuality and reviewed some of his correspondence with Kallenbach, said he does not believe the two men were lovers.
“It is quite a wrong interpretation,” he said.
Gandhi’s great goals were nonviolence, celibacy and truth, he said.
“The Hindu idea is that sexuality has this elemental energy which gets dissipated,” Kakar said. “If it can be sublimated and contained it can give you spiritual power. Gandhi felt his political power really came from his celibacy, from his spiritual power.”
He said Gandhi often filled his letters, including those to female associates, with strong love language, but that did not lead to physical intimacy.
“Nothing happened,” he said. “He is telling his feelings, but they are platonic. They are not put into action. That would have been terrible for him.”
Politicians in the state of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital Mumbai, have also called for a ban on the book and, along with Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi, have asked the central government to bar publication nationwide.
Modi said Lelyveld should apologize publicly for “hurting the sentiments of millions of people.”
“It has become a fashion to tarnish the image of great Indian leaders for self publicity and sale of books,” said Sanjay Dutt, spokesman for the ruling Congress Party in Maharashtra. “The government should invoke a law to severely punish anyone who tarnishes the image of the father of the nation.”
Ranjit Hoskote, a writer and general secretary of PEN India, which fights for free expression, condemned the ban and said local media had misconstrued both Lelyveld’s intentions and the nature of Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach.
“You can’t cite a worse example of third hand reportage and comment,” he said. “How can you ban a book you haven’t read?”
He said Gandhi’s correspondence with Kallenbach has been available in library archives for decades. “There’s no secret. There is no scandal,” he said.