Joseph Lelyveld is a Pulitzer winning journalist, having reported extensively on South Africa and India. Yet just a few pages of a book were all that it took to assess him. Is it about intolerance or sexual hypocrisy? Or are there other reasons?
Don’t you find it ironic that your book has been banned in Gujarat of all states?
Of course, I do. Especially, when you consider who banned it… who stands for a communal doctrine that seems diametrically opposed to everything that Gandhi stood for. I don’t know whether it was really effectively banned. I suspect that if you walk into a book shop in Ahmedabad, you can buy it.
Does this sort of banning speak a lot about the way we deify our icons?
I can’t say…I mean I am a foreigner… I lived in India a long time ago… I can’t really speak for that. I understand that there has been a lot of book banning in India. So obviously, the principle of books should not be banned… obviously, it’s not very secure here. How many of those have to do with icons, I don’t know.
And considering the fact that the controversy was around just one chapter of the book…
Not even a chapter, I wrote about ten pages about the relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach. They reacted to the first page and a half.
And most of the reactions were around the review of the book, many hadn’t even read the book…
That’s right. That’s correct. To be accurate, they were around a report based on the review of the book(laughs).
Do you think that the ban also reflects the hypocrisy about the way we engage with sexuality in our country?
Well, you’ll have to answer that. I know that Rajmohan Gandhi, who wrote a very useful biography of his grandfather, wrote about Gandhi’s relationship with Tagore’s niece, Saraladevi Chaudharani and he said something to the effect that the eros being involved in that. I don’t understand how he could write that and then be offended by what I wrote, which basically had the same kind of tone, only about a relationship with a man. Was it my willingness to discuss the question whether it was homoerotic, that offended him, I don’t know.
Do you think it has got to do more with the homoerotic aspects or the fact that a foreigner has a written the book?
I wondered about that. You tell me. Perhaps it’s transgressive for a foreigner to say things an Indian could say. And the only thing I can say in my own defence is that I first came to India 50 years ago, I have lived in India, come here many times and I love India. I certainly don’t have an Indian citizenship but I also don’t think of myself as foreign to India.
As a country, we are far removed from Gandhian ideals, but at the same time, there is this foisting of brand Gandhi vis a vis Anna Hazare and his fasts. So, what do you make of this whole brand Gandhi?
I know that Gandhi didn’t like the term Gandhian. In his view, he was the only Gandhian and people should show their convictions in their lives primarily by their public service, their service to the poor. He said he didn’t like to think of himself as someone who gathered followers.
Moving away from your book now, as a journalist, what do you think have been some of the most game changing events of the last two decade?
Internet… Certainly 9/11… international terrorism as exemplified by 9/11, with the potential for mass death, and the end of the Soviet Union and collapsed economies.
And personally, stories that you have really enjoyed covering?
I loved being a correspondent, both in India and South Africa. I have been very fortunate in my career. It wasn’t so much about covering major events, more about covering regions.
It’s a crucial year for US, Obama, elections, your views on that?
Every year is a crucial year…
Your views on what could happen and what should happen?
I hope the President is re-elected. I know he has been a disappointment for many and including himself probably, but he can’t be blamed for all the things that have gone wrong in the international economy. He is not a savior. He is as good a President as I can remember but politics is too unpredictable.
Your future projects, what are you working on currently?
I am doing a political article but I have not hit upon a big theme for my next book, but hopefully I will.