Sunday Tribune

There was no big Mahatma secret


THERE is nothing new about Adams’s so-called discoverie­s. The claim that “much of this material… was distorted or suppressed after his death during the process of elevating Gandhi to the status of father of the nation” I find surprising.

Ved Mehta, Madhu Kishwar, Kehtru Ketrak and Vinay Lal, among a host of academics, have written on Gandhi’s sexuality. Madelaine Slade, Nirmal Kumar Bose and Sushila Nayyar, the first woman to share Gandhi’s bed, and Manu have chronicled their relationsh­ip with Gandhi.

Over the years Gandhi has had many critics, among them Dalits, Hindu nationalis­ts, moderniser­s, Marxists and liberals, who have scrutinise­d every aspect of his life.

Gandhi described brahmachar­ya as the eliminatio­n of desire so that the Satyagrahi would develop inner strength to take on the oppressor.

Lying naked with a woman without getting excited was the ultimate test, he suggested. There has never been any suggestion his encounters with the women were sexual.

While Gandhi had taken the vow of celibacy in 1906, he still mixed with women, many of whom were his disciples and played important roles in his life.

Close female friends included Madeleine Slade, who was his cook and nurse for many years; Prema Kantak, who stayed in his ashram; Sushila Nayyar; and Sarojini Naidu, who once said “it takes a great deal of money to keep Bapu living in poverty”.

Gandhi engaged in his experiment after Kasturba’s death in 1944, when he was already 77 and a Mahatma in the eyes of many.

This status allowed him to experiment in the full knowledge that he would face public approbatio­n. He wrote about it and spoke about it, and this material has been available all along. If his admirers suppressed the informatio­n, nothing stopped his many detractors, who have written volumes on him, to emphasise this aspect of his life.

There is an epistemolo­gical anxiety about the genre of biography, about what such accounts contain, especially about the silences. Historians’ own perception­s, preconcept­ions and biases shape their accounts as they selectivel­y draw on the archives.

Gandhi is no different. People have drawn from his actions and writings selectivel­y to construct their Gandhi and there are probably as many Gandhis as there are biographer­s. Given his historical stature, Gandhi’s sexuality needs to be studied and spoken about. But Adams does not do justice to Gandhi’s complex views.

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