Behind the furor over "Great Soul," Joseph Lelyveld's biography of Mahatma Gandhi

Lelyveld says he principally intended to explore India's resistance to many of Gandhi's central teachings – not suggestions of Gandhi's sexual orientation.

Controversy has done much to boost sales of of "Great Soul," his biography of Mahatma Gandhi, says Joseph Lelyveld, but he remains surprised that readers have focused so much attention on just a few paragraphs of the book.

Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the world's most influential newspaper, is certainly no stranger to controversy. But he didn't expect his new book about Mahatma Gandhi to draw the reaction it did.

"Great Soul," he thought, might raise eyebrows because of the way it explores the conflict between Gandhi's ideals and the country that venerates him. But when it was published in March, much of the world's attention focused on just a few paragraphs in which he discusses Gandhi's possible physical relationship with a male architect.

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The fuss over the book, which was actually banned in part of India, has since died down. This week, I asked Lelyveld, the former executive editor of the New York Times, about what the reaction taught him.

Q: What surprised you about the reaction to the book?

I was struck by the fact that hardly anybody reacted to what I considered to be the main themes of the book, what I said I was setting out to do. A lot of the reviews got tangled up in reconsideration of Gandhi by the reviewers or side issues.

I was trying to take Gandhi seriously as the social reformer he always meant to be. That's why the book is called "Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India." I wasn't setting out to challenge the traditional narrative of his life, but amplify it and consider it from another angle, how resistant India was to many of his central teachings, which remains true today. I thought that might be controversial in India, but it never was.

India maintains one of the world's largest standing armies and nuclear weapons. Gandhi, having read the accounts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, said in 1947, "God save us from this atom bomb mentality," which was an amazing thing for him to say. India had just become independent, and no one imagined it going nuclear except Gandhi. The foreboding strikes me as quite extraordinary.

Gandhi's personal values included non-violence. Indians tend to see Gandhi as a symbol of nationhood, fearlessness, and courage, but they don't dwell on non-violence.

Q: What kind of effect did the book ban in India have?

It was banned in the state of Gujarat, Gandhi's home region. I don't know whether that ban is being enforced, but the truth is that the banning was a great favor to me.

It was done by Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state and probably aptly described as the most polarizing figure in Indian politics. He's nobody's idea of a Gandhian, and to be banned by Narendra Modi is to be made appealing in the eyes of other Indians. My publisher was able to triple the print run and move up the publication date by a few months, and that was all to my benefit.

Q: What did you think of the focus on Gandhi's relationship with the architect?

Perhaps I could had foreseen it, but I hadn't. I didn't really think that would be a sensitive point. In all, it represents 10 to 12 pages in a book of about 350 pages, and the paragraphs that got attention were 3 to 4 paragraphs of those pages.

Q: What were some other notable reactions to the book?

There have been some British reactions that almost seem to come out of the 1930s, from people who are locked in some imperial debate about whether we should keep India or not, which is past the point today. People who essentially think that Gandhi was basically an impostor, a politician masquerading as a spiritual figure. I don't accept that, and I don't even think it's an interesting topic for discussion.

Q: What is the biggest misunderstood thing about Gandhi?

I don't think he was a saint. But he was a man of great moral seriousness, quite unusual in the politics of any country.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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