David Saks
David Saks

Gandhi, Kallenbach and the controversial ‘Vaseline’ reference

Presumably some of the elderly members of the audience had no idea what the speaker was getting at when the subject of Vaseline came up in his talk on M K Gandhi and Herman Kallenbach. They, after all, belonged to a time when Vaseline was still associated with skin care rather than as a means of facilitating homosexual intercourse. Other audience members must have squirmed a bit though; I know, I did. After an erudite discourse on the high idealism, striving for spiritual elevation and shared devotion to combating injustice that characterised the friendship between the two men, it was more than a little jarring to be confronted with the bare mechanics of what, in less enlightened times, was referred to as “buggery”.

To put everyone in the picture, in 2011 the writer Joseph Lelyfeld provoked a bitter controversy when passages in his new book on Gandhi (Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India) were interpreted by some reviewers as inferring that he and the German-Jewish architect Herman Kallenbach were lovers during the time they lived together in Johannesburg. Such inferences were derived from certain letters Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach, in which he commented among other things that Vaseline and cotton wool were a “constant reminder” of him. Further meaning has been read into the practice of the two men of referring to one another in their correspondence as “Upper House” (Gandhi) and “Lower House” (Kallenbach). Lelyveld himself has rejected the gay interpretation of his work, saying that it did not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual, but rather that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. Even so, Great Soul has been banned in parts of India, and it continues, rightly or wrongly, to be primarily associated with an attempt at “outing” the Mahatma.

The speaker at the above-mentioned event, Israeli author (of Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Herman Kallenbach) and researcher Shimon Lev, debunked the homosexuality theory. Even prior to meeting Kallenbach, Gandhi had adopted a regime of strict celibacy and persuaded his friend to do likewise. Writing to his brother, Kallenbach confirmed that he had given up what had been an active heterosexual sex life (years later, he had at least one extended heterosexual affair, although he never married). The two men lived lives of the strictest ascetism, following a simple vegetarian diet, doing every menial physical chore themselves and in general limiting physical comforts to the barest necessities. So far as the “Vaseline” reference goes, this simply referred to how they treated the corns they developed through walking for many miles each day to their offices. (Gandhi once tried to persuade Kallenbach to burn his car. In the end, he simply left it unused in the garage for a year and then sold it. When the two men lived on Tolstoy Farm, they would walk twenty kilometres each day into the centre of town).

As for the terms “Upper House” and “Lower House”, Kallenbach was referred to by the latter because, like the Lower House in the British Parliament, he controlled the financial side of things, not just in their home set-up but in his largely bankrolling the entire Satyagraha (Indian Passive Resistance) movement. In Gandhi’s case, “Upper House” indicated the dominant role he had in determining the spiritual and philosophical development of the two men. Accounting for the terms even more simply, in the house they shared in Orchards, Johannesburg, Gandhi slept in a loft while Kallenbach slept on the floor below. So much for “Upper” and “Lower” being code words for active and passive sodomy. That people’s thoughts so readily stray in that direction nowadays probably says more about the times we live in than in this aspect of the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship. Here, a white Jew and an Indian Hindu were able to transcend the formidable barriers of race, culture and religion to establish a remarkable personal bond, one characterised by a joint striving to live lives of the highest idealism. Today, it is all reduced to grubby speculation over who inserted what and where.

Some might ask why it is necessary to disprove the homosexuality theory, since even if there was a sexual component to the relationship that would hardly be antithetical to modern, liberal sensibilities. To that, there is at least one persuasive answer, namely that if there was a sexual relationship between the two men, then they were hypocrites and frauds since both claimed to be celibate. This inference would be bad enough if made solely against Kallenbach, a genuinely noble personality who devoted much of his life to fighting racial injustice in this country. It would be even worse if applied to Gandhi, someone who for all his undoubted eccentricities was undoubtedly one of history’s greatest leaders and thinkers who continues to inspire millions the world over.

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