*A Reputation, and More, in Ruins: Gandhi at the Aga Khan Palace, Pune

 

He may be the “Father of the Nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters.  A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”.

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Aga Khan’s Palace, Pune.  Source:  Khushroo Cooper, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcooper/3074143937/sizes/o/in/photostream/

 

On my visit to this monument in March of this year, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation.  This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes.  If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, one celebrated by those elites who were enraged at the thought that the old man would if alive continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet in an evil world, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.

 

The Aga Khan Palace is remembered not only as the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime.  One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images of Gandhi shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba.  She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of those whose names are inscribed in the annals of anti-colonial resistance.  (No, it is not political correctness that has provoked an interest in Kasturba.) It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage which lasted over 60 years was brought to an end by her demise.  Not only that:  Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterized in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement at the Aga Khan Palace.  In any other age, Mahadev, an uncommonly good writer and translator with a gift of observation and an exceedingly disciplined mind, would have achieved recognition as something more than the amaneunsis of Gandhi.

 

One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be preserved as a treasured place in the nation’s history.  There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct and unique part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi.  The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over Kasturba.

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One of the somewhat better preserved paintings, though “Rural India” is not very much on the minds of the Government of India or the country’s elites.  Photo: V. Lal, 2016.

“New Hope for Rural India” is one of the rare paintings of Gandhi that points to his engagement with the “Constructive Programme”.  All of the paintings are clearly in want of restoration:  the colors have uniformly faded, on occasion there are pigeon droppings, and the wooden frames show signs of decay.  Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair.  Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in “A Crusader for Humanity”; many of the other figures are blurred.

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The artist was not attempting to create a blurred effect with his painting on Gandhi as a “crusader for human equality”.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons—except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life.  Gandhi experimented for the greater part of his life with toilets that would work with little or no water.  One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is entitled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur.

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The slate of Gandhi’s teachings on cleanliness has been wiped clean!  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

Perhaps there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over ‘Swacch Bharat’, the country has for decades blotted out the very idea of public hygiene from its consciousness.  V S Naipual had something nasty to say about this years ago, and however intolerable he is on most occasions, he had the gift both of observation and of writing.  But he was, not unexpectedly, roundly derided for reminding everyone of the shit that mars nearly every Indian landscape.  India, let us recall, holds—and by an exceedingly large margin—the world record for open defecation.  But there is something else about these paintings and displays that grabs the eye. Gandhi, even as he wrestled with issues of the greatest gravity, was always supremely attentive to the minutest details.  Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy that is under their charge.  The entire Palace and museum complex reeks of decay, indifferent, and neglect.

 

The shocking state of disrepair in which the Aga Khan Palace—a monument, let us reiterate, dedicated to the nation both for its place in the struggle for self-determination at a pivotal stage, and as the site of events critical to Gandhi’s life—has been allowed to languish is not likely to excite anyone’s attention.  The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable.  Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who not coincidentally was born in Pune District.  Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.  The Government of Maharashtra is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as a eunuch.  It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable research institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons for none other than the reason that an American scholar, Jim Laine, had some years ago done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to their hero.  For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.

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At this rate, all that will be left of Gandhi is pigeon droppings.  This panel is illustrative of the condition of many of the displays.  Photo:  V. Lal, March 2016.

However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either.  Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him.  In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to denounced Gandhi as a sexist and racist; and there are even websites that claim that he raped virgins and should have been jailed as a serial sex offender.  Some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution—apparently, unless several million people have not been killed, or the enemy has not been exterminated in a calculated genocide, a genuine upheaval cannot be viewed as having taken place—in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike.  Arundhati Roy is, of course, much too smart and sophisticated to write a book with a title akin to something like ‘The Gandhi You Never Knew’, but the substance of her critique is effectively the same.  And that critique is nothing other than the stupid idea that the “real” Gandhi has been hidden from history.  If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.  Then India can celebrate its “real” independence and manhood.

*The Sexuality of a Celibate Life

A celibate for the greater part of his life, Mohandas Gandhi continues to attract nearly unrivaled attention – often for the sex that did not take place. Even his friends and admirers, who revered him for bringing ethics to the political life, or for never demanding of others what he did not first demand of himself, were quite certain that Gandhi was unable to comprehend that a woman and a man might enjoy a perfectly healthy sexual relationship with each other. Nehru, seldom critical of the personal life of his political mentor, was convinced that Gandhi harboured an “unnatural” suspicion of the sexual life; and he deplored, as did many others, Gandhi’s strongly held view that sexual intercourse, other than for purposes of procreation, had no place in civilised life – not even among married couples.  The Marxists have long subscribed to the view that Gandhi was a “romantic”, a hopeless idealist and even hypocrite; to this a chorus of voices added the thought that Gandhi was an insufferable “puritan”.

Gandhi’s discomfort with the sexual life, according to one widely accepted strand of thought, commenced when his father passed away shortly after his marriage to Kasturba.  Though the young Gandhi liked to nurse his ailing father, one evening he was unable to contain his urge to share a night of ribaldry with his young wife. He had just withdrawn to the bedroom when a knock on the door announced that his father had passed away. Gandhi was, it has been argued, never able to forgive himself his transgression, and became determined to master his sexual drive. A more complex narrative links his renunciation of sex to his firm conviction, first developed during the heat of a campaign of nonviolent resistance to oppression in South Africa, that it compromised his ability to be a perfect satyagrahi.  Many commentators have pointed to his failure to consult with Kasturba before he took a vow of celibacy at the age of 37 as a sign of his cruelty and tendency to be self-serving.

One British reviewer of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of the Mahatma, however, had much more than this in mind when he characterised Gandhi as a “sexual weirdo”.  In his 70s, in the sunset of his life, Gandhi embarked on a new set of sexual experiments in which several women partook, among them Manu and Abha, his “two walking sticks”, and Sushila Nayar, his personal physician and sister of his secretary Pyarelal.  In the midst of raging communal violence, which Gandhi characteristically attributed to his own personal shortcomings, he decided to test his resolve – by going to bed naked with one or the other of the women. His detractors have ever since had a field day: though no one has ever suggested that Gandhi made improper advances, or that the encounter was in the remotest manner sexual, the mask is supposed to have come off the “dirty old man”.  Few of his critics are aware that after such experiments came to a halt, Manu penned a remarkable little book titled, Bapu, My Mother; or that Sushila Nayar, furnishing an account several years after Gandhi’s death of these experiments in brahmacharya, stated that, far from experiencing any sexual desire, she felt as though she was sharing the bed with her mother.

The celibate Gandhi is as much a conundrum as any other Gandhi we have known. Though the principal architect of the Indian Independence struggle, he had much less invested in the idea of the nation-state than any other nationalist. He was a radical democrat but one detects a streak of authoritarianism in his political conduct; and, similarly, while declaring himself a bhakta of Tulsidas, he never doubted that passages in the Ramacharitmanas that were repugnant to one’s moral conscience were to be rejected. The vow of brahmacharya did not preclude, as it has for reformers and saints in Indian religious traditions, the company of women; indeed, Gandhi adored their presence and reveled in their touch. He was constantly surrounded by women, and for decades Mirabehn, the daughter of an English admiral who was mesmerised by the Mahatma, was privy to his innermost thoughts to such an extent as to arouse jealousy within Kasturba. Their correspondence has a touch of the erotic; and, Mirabehn, in particular, would write of her longing for the Mahatma when he was away. She was by no means the only woman with whom Gandhi enjoyed a platonic relationship:  there was an intense exchange of “love letters” over many years between him and Esther Faering, a Danish missionary, and Saraladevi Chowdharani was cast as his “spiritual wife”.  Many of his male friendships are equally interesting:  for example, he may also have been attracted to Hermann Kallenbach, a wealthy Jewish architect who would become one of Gandhi’s earliest patrons and closest friends. Kallenbach, a body-builder and athlete, may have been the embodiment of masculinity, but Gandhi saw his soft side and his gift for nonviolence.

We are not likely to understand these friendships, which should also make us aware of Gandhi’s singular disinterest in the traditional concept of the family, if we fail to make a distinction between sex and sexuality and see through to the core of his thoughts on masculinity and femininity. Though Gandhi repudiated sex, which he saw as a finite game, finite in that its end seemed to be mere physical consummation, he was a consummate player of sexuality who delighted in the infinite pleasures of touch, companionship, and the eroticism of longing and withdrawal. More so than any other Indian political figure of his time, Gandhi made very little distinction between men and women. This will appear to be a brazen statement to those who have read his unequivocally clear pronouncements on the distinct duties of women and men and the spheres they ought ideally to occupy in life.  In practice, however, he fundamentally treated them as alike, endeavouring also to bring out something of the feminine in men and something of the masculine in women. It is wholly characteristic of the Mahatma, a relentless advocate of experiments with truth, that even if he appeared to work with a crude conception of what it means to be male or female, his entire life can be read as an attempt to bring us to a new threshold of understanding the notions of masculinity and femininity.

(originally published in “The Asian Age”, 1 May 2011)