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The new Gandhi book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, is struggling with India before it has even been read here. Former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld's biography of Gandhi has predictably been reviled and banned, based on a clutch of initial reviews that highlighted a few racy bits about Gandhi's possibly sexual affection for a young Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach, and his less-than-immediate solidarity with blacks in South Africa. These are only fleeting mentions in the book, as many reviewers acknowledge, and are intended to humanise the Mahatma, rather than detracting from his tremendous achievements — but that hasn't stopped the flood of self-righteous fury in India. Maharashtra and Gujarat, the most easily excitable states, were the first to announce the ban, but Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily has assured the public that the Centre is also considering a ban.
This furore is depressingly predictable. Partly, it is because we prefer nationalist history to sound like a bedtime story of the good and the bad, and no one is so unambiguously good as Gandhi. Then again, in a country where Article 377 that criminalised homosexuality has only recently been struck down, sexuality is not a matter of airy speculation. When the suggestion is made of the sainted Gandhi, some controversy was only to be expected. However, Gandhi did not abide by these limits. His letters and conversations reveal him as consumed with the idea of bodily discipline, matters of diet, hygiene and sexuality — he truly experimented with these ideas, rather than accepting the givens of his culture, even if he returned to an idealised vegetarianism and chastity. It's a pity that those who are so protective of his halo now do not possess that capacity to think for themselves.
But what's truly abhorrent, even though it has been seen over and over again in India, is the alacrity with which we ban and proscribe books. Instead of letting people judge Lelyveld's book, and discard it if the scholarship fails to persuade, the state declares it incendiary and closes off the possibility of reading it at all. In Maharashtra, for instance, political parties fight each other to appear most intolerant, to slap down scholarly and artistic works over the flimsiest pretexts, instead of defending free thought and inquiry.