It has come as something of a surprise to many that Joseph Lelyveld's new biography of Gandhi -- Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India (Knopf) -- seems to be causing considerable offense in Gandhi's homeland, largely because of Lelyveld's discussion of Gandhi's relationship with a German-Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach. Indian cabinet members have publicly condemned the book, and Great Soul has already been banned in Gujarat, the state where Gandhi was born and raised.
The surprise comes largely because Americans often forget just how capacious freedom of speech is in America. It is unlawful in many Western European democracies to publicly extol Hitler, for example, or make disparaging remarks about somebody's religious beliefs. We frown on such practices here, of course; but they do not lead to prosecution and imprisonment. Similarly, it is something of a shock to learn that the world's largest democracy (India) can be notoriously censorious: The Satanic Verses, which earned Salman Rushdie a death sentence from Iran for supposed offense to Muslims, was banned in India.
In defense of Great Soul, by the way, it should be said that, outside of India, speculation about Gandhi's sexual life -- homosexual and otherwise -- is nothing new, and that Lelyveld is very guarded in his examination of the evidence of the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship, drawing no firm conclusions. A former Indian correspondent and executive editor of the New York Times, Lelyveld is clearly an admirer of Gandhi and describes himself as a "friend of India," but he and his Indian publisher (HarperCollins) are girding themselves for a threatened nationwide ban.
All of this is likely to mystify American readers who have been treated, in recent years, to books that argue for Abraham Lincoln's homosexuality, J. Edgar Hoover's transvestism, and Thomas Jefferson's intercourse with a slave. But we should not be too hasty to deplore Indian sensitivities about that country's secular saint. Jefferson and Lincoln are both historical figures from whom we are separated by a century-and-a-half, and nowadays Hoover is more villain than hero in the public imagination.
I happen to be a Gandhi skeptic myself, but can certainly appreciate the Indian attitude toward the titular leader of that country's independence movement. Moreover, while it is easy enough in America to publish a novel that features Richard Nixon raped by Uncle Sam (The Public Burning by Robert Coover), or gleefully speculates about the assassination of George W. Bush (Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker), there are certain taboo subjects here as well. A novel such as Robert Coover's, which subjected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the same series of sexual humiliations suffered by Richard Nixon, would not be greeted especially warmly; and it would surely be interesting to gauge the reaction to a Nicholson Baker novel that welcomes the murder of Barack Obama.
Before we laugh at those censorious Indians, we might acknowledge that there are untouchables here as well.