Patrick French: The Truth About Mahatma Gandhi ... He Was A Wily Bigot, Not India’s Smiling Saint
Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait.
This week, the National Archives here in New Delhi released a set of letters between Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and a close friend from his South African days, Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish architect. Cue a set of ludicrous "Gay Gandhi" headlines across the world, wondering whether the fact the Mahatma signed some letters "Sinly yours" might be a clue (seemingly unaware that "sinly" was once a common contraction of "sincerely").
The origin of this rumour was a mischievous book review two years ago written by the historian Andrew Roberts, which speculated about the relationship between the men. On the basis of the written evidence, it seems unlikely that their friendship in the years leading up to the First World War was physical.
Gandhi is one of the best-documented figures of the pre-electronic age. He has innumerable biographies. If he managed to be gay without anyone noticing until now, it was a remarkable feat. The official record of his sayings and writings runs to more than 90 volumes, and reveals that his last words before being assassinated in 1948 were not an invocation to God, as is commonly reported, but the more prosaic: "It irks me if I am late for prayers even by a minute."
That Gandhi had an eccentric attitude to sleeping habits, food and sexuality, regarding celibacy as the only way for a man to avoid draining his "vital fluid", is well known. Indeed, he spoke about it at length during his sermons, once linking a "nocturnal emission" of his own to the problems in Indian society.
According to Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, Mahatma Gandhi’s pronouncements on sex were "abnormal and unnatural" and "can only lead to frustration, inhibition, neurosis, and all manner of physical and nervous ills… I do not know why he is so obsessed by this problem of sex".
Although some of Gandhi’s unconventional ideas were rooted in ancient Hindu philosophy, he was more tellingly a figure of the late Victorian age, both in his puritanism and in his kooky theories about health, diet and communal living. Like other epic figures from the not too distant past, such as Leo Tolstoy and Queen Victoria, he is increasingly perceived in ways that would have surprised his contemporaries. Certainly no contemporary Indian politician would dare to speak about him in the frank tone that his ally Nehru did...
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