Aravind Adiga on Gandhi's Forgotten Legacy of Manliness

The latest controversy over Gandhi's sexuality ignores his true legacy as the ultimate symbol of Indian manhood, says White Tiger author Aravind Adiga.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images,Hulton Archive

Great Soul, a new biography of Mahatma Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld, has
 caused a storm in India by raising the possibility that Gandhi had an intimate 
relationship with a German-Jewish man named Hermann Kallenbach. Great Soul has been banned in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat, and has led to
 calls for a draconian new law against “insulting Gandhi.” This is 
hardly the first controversy stirred by Gandhi’s sexuality. Every few 
years, another biography, usually by a foreign author, shines the 
spotlight on some of the Mahatma’s stranger habits: how, for instance,
 in his old age, he tested his celibacy by occasionally sleeping beside 
younger women. Such recurring controversies over his sexuality blur 
the Mahatma’s real legacy to his fellow Indians: his masculinity.

When I was growing up in a small town in south India in the 1980s, 
centuries of foreign rule, most recently by the British, had resulted
 in a crisis of Indian masculinity, which continues to this day. The 
journalist M.J. Akbar once noted that Indian males grow up in the 
shadow of powerful women—mothers and grandmothers—with fathers 
hovering about ineffectually. What was true of Indian society 
was true of our politics: There were no Charles de Gaulles or Fidel 
Castros to inspire us. Independent India’s most important statesman,
 Jawaharlal Nehru, suffered from an air of masculine inadequacy, 
stemming from his failure to forestall the Chinese invasion of India 
in 1962. Liberal, tolerant Indian politicians almost always looked
 like pathetic specimens of masculinity; the charismatic men were 
either those who had advocated military action against the British—or the even more macho Hindu nationalists.

On the other hand, there was Gandhi. He had spoken of peace,
 nonviolence, and was sympathetic toward Muslims—a sin for which he 
was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist in 1948. Yet he was tough.
 No one could deny that, not even those who despised him. Look at that 
lean, fatless body of his, that could apparently go without food for 
as long as he ordered it to, when fasting for a political cause. This 
grinning old man with the missing teeth had been sent to jail by the 
British again and again: but he had never been broken. If this wasn’t
 manliness, what was?

We in India can never see Gandhi as the sexless, Yoda-like figure that 
many in the West still do. In his autobiography, The Story of My 
Experiments With Truth, which is required reading in most Indian schools, 
Gandhi wrote with candor about his struggles with his sexuality: how, 
for instance, as a newly-wed man he was so taken by his wife that he 
shirked his duties to his ailing father to spend more time with her. 
Honesty of this kind was rare in the ultra-conservative milieu of my 
adolescence; and Gandhi’s frankness cast a small thin light in between
 the darkness of small-town sexual taboos on one side, and pornography
 on the other.

Gandhi is everywhere in India in 2011. Step out of a bus at Majestic,
 the central bus stop in the city of Bangalore, and you confront a 
giant poster of a grumpy Mahatma with the message: “Do Not Drink.” 
This bullying image is the Indian government’s response to the growing 
problem of alcoholism in the country. Stamped on our currency notes,
 embossed on government notices, framed on the walls of our police 
stations, Gandhi’s face is now as an instrument of social control.
 This is why many young men—and I was one of them—regard Gandhi with 
something like hatred. On the other hand, in the West, he is just a 
series of new-age slogans—“Love is peace,” “Truth is everything.” To 
think of Gandhi as a man—a celibate, virile man—rescues him from 
those images, alternately bland and repressive, into which he has 

For those of us seeking to
 understand our masculinity in ethical terms, as a force for good, there is only one model.

For the second half of his life, Mahatma Gandhi was not straight, gay, 
or bisexual: He was, by choice, celibate. Influenced by the Hindu
 notion of “brahmacharya” (morally guided celibacy) Gandhi gave up sex 
in his mid-thirties. In doing so, he was also emulating one of his heroes, 
Leo Tolstoy, who late in life renounced sex as part of his revolt 
against the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian imperial state. 
Freud’s influence on our thinking is such that we now see all forms of sexual renunciation as repression and neurosis. The 
world is full of normal, well-adjusted men and women, enjoying normal sex lives: And look what a mess they have made 
of things. Tolstoy and Gandhi—two very strange men—made it a better
 place for all of us to live in.

Out of his strangeness came his power. Gandhi the politician—and he
 saw himself as one—was inventive, cunning, and inspiring. He was 
also moody, secretive, and egotistical; but what redeems him, what 
washes away his weakness and weirdness, is his courage. In 1947 and
 1948, when his life’s work seemed to have been in vain, and India was
 being torn apart by sectarian violence, Gandhi did not hide or
 despair. He walked right into the midst of murderous mobs, chastising
 them with the simplest of truths: “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Young Indian men today can pick from many role models: business 
tycoons, film stars, cricketing heroes. But for those of us seeking to
 understand our masculinity in ethical terms, as a force for good, there is only one model. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is our
 manhood—our living Indian manhood.

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Aravind Adiga is the author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for fiction. His new novel, Last Man in Tower , will be published by Knopf in September.