Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Kinky Mahatma and the prickly Indians


We Indians are a rather prickly lot when it comes any writings on the private lives of our national icons – especially if it is by foreign authors. It is telling that, Indian writers generally steer clear of such “taboo” topics (barring a few like Sudhir Kakar) preferring not to court controversy and brick-bats. Western societies are far less touchy on such matters. You may call it chauvinistic hypocrisy or traits of a schizophrenic national character. It is common knowledge that many of our politicians lead rather colourful (nay,sleazy) lives, but our journos maintain a complicit silence over such stories – which you get to hear in the media cocktail circuit (with the rare exception of some toothless octogenerians like N. D. Tiwari and that too because the matter came into public domain due to a paternity suit filed by an alleged off-spring and his romps at the Hyderabad Raj Bhavan). JFK to Berlusconi


Yet, when it comes to salacious gossip about the sex lives of politicians of other countries – be it a Sarkozy, Berlusconi or serial scandals of British parliamentarians – we gleefully lap it all up and give them prime column space in our newspapers. Stories abound about the numerous love affairs of JFK but we get uptight at the mention of the Nehru-Edwina affair. A biography of Ambdkar that, is given a quiet burial because it mentioned his girl-friends.We fill our pages with pictures and stories of Prince William and his Kate - but never talk about our own Prince-in-waiting's Spanish girl-friend. Curiously, we apply different standards even for our neighbours in the sub-continent. After Shahbaz Bhatti – the liberal Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province – was assassinated recently, a leading magazine carried a story about his playboy past – including details of his love child with a yesteryear diva of Indian media – now a significant other of a well-know industrialist. Perhaps, there was some professional envy at play there. So – every once in a few years when there is a new book on Gandhi that contains some references to his sexuality (something Gandhi had himself dwelt at some length in his Autobiography – My Experiments with Truth ) there is predictable public outrage followed by demand for banning of the book that finally whittles down to cynical dismissal as a cheap ‘publicity stunt’. The latest being the biography written by the Pulitzer winning former editor of New York Times – Joseph Lelyveld (Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India). In what is by all accounts a very well researched biography – what has made head-lines are some passing quotations from letters written by Gandhi to his proclaimed “soulmate” Hermann Kallenbach, which has strong hints of his homosexual tendencies. “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite my bed…..how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with vengeance”, he wrote to Kallenbach, a wealthy bachelor of who later donated large parts of his considerable fortunes to Gandhi and remained his “follower” for life. Such is the extent of our blind worship that – we unquestioningly accept Gandhi’s somewhat specious explanation of why he chose to sleep naked with nubile young female companions. Boudi Boudoir


We are equally reticent about the love lives of our celebrities in the world of arts, film and literature. Stories abound about of the scores of muses (read, lovers) Tagore had in his long lifetime starting at a very young age with his sister-in-law (legitimizing the “boudi boudoir” tradition among Bongs) - but none of that is documented. Satyajit Ray’s affair with the heroine of some of his early masterpieces came to light after his death – when the lady in question decided to speak up. But, it was allowed to die down and we were happy to believe his wife’s version that apart from that one instance of straying (which she magnanimously condones as an error of judgement) he never looked outside of his marriage – though, some knowledgeable persons have their own casting couch theories. Sudhir Kakar, Jeffrey Kripal and some other psychologists have espoused controversial theories about Sri Ramakrishna’s sexuality, which have met with rightful condemnation from the “believers” (including yours truly).

Sex(uality) maketh a man


All this is not about vicarious voyeurism. What we fail to recognize is that, a person’s sexuality is a very important part in his evolution. You cannot fathom a great person in totality without understanding his sexuality. Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying ‘sex maketh a man’ (in more senses than one) – it certainly forms the essence of his personality. Even as Lelyveld himself argues "it is an effort of imagination that we should at least attempt" in our trying to understand what Gandhi aspired through his 'experiments'(he calls it a form of 'sexlessness' rather than bi-sexualism - or what is referred to as 'flexi-sexualism nowadays). We tend to easily deify our heroes and like to see them only in white. But, it is the shades of black and grey that truly defines them. Certainly – a Nityananda is no Gandhi – but I wonder what would have been the public reaction to similar “experiments” conducted – be it within the confines of a commune – in the this day and age - with our spycams and 'sting' operations.