Two groups cancel Gandhi book event

Controversy over rumors about gay relationship cited

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / April 10, 2011

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Two Lexington groups have canceled an appearance by the author of a Mahatma Gandhi biography that’s been banned in part of India, the second cancellation this month for the author.

Joseph Lelyveld’s “Great Soul,’’ about Gandhi’s stuggle for social justice, was banned in the western state of Gujarat last month after reviews hinted that Gandhi had a homosexual relationship. Such relationships were illegal in India until 2009 and still carry a stigma.

Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former executive editor of The New York Times, said yesterday the book never alleges Gandhi was gay or bisexual.

Puran Dang, chairman of the Indian Americans of Lexington, which was co-sponsoring a planned April 29 visit by Lelyveld to the Lexington Historical Society, said he hasn’t read the book and “the author may be 100 percent correct.’’ But Dang said his group wanted to avoid any controversy for the historical society and informed the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, of the cancellation on Thursday.

“To avoid any controversy, with all respect to the author . . . it was a decision which was jointly taken in the interest of everything being in a peaceful status,’’ Dang said. He said there had been no indication of any trouble at the Lexington event.

Lelyveld wryly referred to the group’s position as “a very courageous stand.’’

In a statement, Knopf said the decision to cancel the event was “based on misinformation, not facts.’’

A telephone call and an e-mail to the historical society yesterday weren’t immediately returned.

Early this month, an educational organization in Santa Clara, Calif., the Foundation for Excellence, canceled an appearance by Lelyveld, also citing a desire to avoid controversy.

Lelyveld’s book has not been released in India but was banned in Gujarat after several reviews described Gandhi’s relationship with a German man named Hermann Kallenbach, including a letter to Kallenbach that read, “How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.’’

Lelyveld said the controversy centers on three paragraphs out of about a dozen pages about the relationship that also describe both men’s commitment to celibacy, which Lelyveld believes they kept.

Lelyveld has made several appearances for the book this month without incident, including in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

“It’s not a universal reaction,’’ he said. “I just think it created a small tempest, and those who want to stay away can stay away.’’