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Gandhi and the serendipity of reading

Gandhi followers have been scandalised by recent claims in reviews of a new biography of Gandhi that he is portrayed as a bisexual and that he had a male lover. According to reviews the biography by Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, claims that Gandhi was in love with Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish German architect who lived in Johannesburg. It is said that Kallenbach, who was one of Gandhi’s closest followers, had a relationship with Gandhi between 1908 and 1910 when they lived on Tolstoy Farm near Krugersdorp. The Indian state of Gujarat has now even banned the Lelyveld biography rejecting the claims that the leader of the Indian independence was bisexual.

Lelyveld has consistently denied that he made any such claims in the book: "It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual. It does not say that he was a racist. The word bisexual never appears in the book and the word racist only appears once in a very limited context; relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set attitudes or history in South Africa. I didn't say these things, so I can hardly defend them."

Reading auto-biographical writings by Pauline Podlashuk in the past week, a young woman who came to South Africa from Russia in 1902, I was surprised to come upon her recollections of visiting Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Kallenbach on a farm near Krugersdorp. Pauline was working as a typist at the time in the city and had been asked to translate a letter from Russian. It was a letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi; in fact it was one of three last letters Tolstoy wrote before he died. In this letter he encourages Gandhi to persevere in his passive resistance campaign. When it reached Gandhi in South Africa, the great Russian author was on his deathbed in a little known train station in central Russia.

Soon after translating the letter for Gandhi, Hermann Kallenbach invites Pauline to visit the farm that he had bought as a refuge for Indian families who were left without financial support after their men were arrested during a passive resistance march from Natal to the Transvaal.  This farm became known as Tolstoy farm. Pauline and  a friend were met at the train station by Kallenbach, suntanned and dressed in a white shirt without tie and white trousers, sandals without socks. Pauline remarks that for that  time it was quite unusual attire, but apparently this was how he was dressed, living the “simple life” with the Gandhis on the farm. Pauline continues to have tea on the farm and on Gandhi’s suggestion also meets his wife, who could not speak English.

Not much more is said about meeting Mr. Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach, and nothing else can be derived about the nature of their relationship.

The serendipity of reading never fails to surprise me.  I have been reading about the lives of two unrelated women; both are Jewish who came to live in South Africa as young women in about the same time. Bertha Goudvis née Cinamon comes from England as a 5-year old in 1881, and Pauline Podlashuk, as a 16-year old from Russia in 1902. Although they presumably never met, they often write about the same people and the same historical events.

Recently published by Picador, (Pan Macmillan, SA), South African Odyssey, an autobiography of Bertha Goudvis, edited by Marcia Leveson, recounts the life of a precocious young girl who, with her mother and sister, follows from England her father to South Africa, where he is a smous following the gold trail, first in Jagersfontein, then settling briefly in Burgersdorp, before he upends his family again to follow him to Barberton, to Bulawayo where she meets her future husband, Leigh (Lucas) Goudvis, to Gwelo with Goudvis, and to Lourenco Marques, to Vryheid in Natal and finally to Johannesburg. It is a life of great endurance and poverty, and despite no formal education beyond the age of 9, Bertha becomes a journalist and published writer. Her novel, Little Eden and short stories,  The Mistress of Mooiplaas and other stories, are according to Stephen Gray and Marcia Leveson, remarkable and should be seen as the female version of Herman Charles Bosman’s  stories. They believe both books should be in print again.

Bertha writes in her autobiography of meeting and drinking tea with President Paul Kruger when he is in Delagoa Bay, on his way in exile to Europe, she hears Cecil John Rhodes speak, and is not very impressed by him; she meets General Louis Botha and finds him a compassionate man; she meets General Herzog and has to give a speech alongside General Jan Smuts at a meeting of the Women’s South African Party of which she was a member. She is involved in the enfranchisement campaigns.

Pauline Podlashuk’s life up to the age of about 36 is recounted in her reminiscences which have just been edited and published by two great nieces of her, Effie Schulz and Judy Nasatyr. What makes this book interesting is her impressions of early Johannesburg but also her recollections of Russia before the Great War. Originally from Shavli in Russia, which later became Lithuania, she has a good education, but following her mother’s early death and father’s move to Israel, her brothers, who escaped conscription in Russia by going to South Africa, tell her to follow them. Her dream of studying medicine is thwarted and only 12 years later, when she is past 30 years old, she finally fulfils her ambition by going to Glasgow to study medicine. She too was deeply involved in getting the vote for women and later in London hears Sylvia Pankhurst speak on the subject.

Both women write about their impressions of Johannesburg when they first enter it, by train.

Podlashuk writes about her arrival in Johannesburg in 1902:

“I travelled from Bloemfontein during the night. When I woke up in the morning, there was not much to be seen and only when the train was approaching Johannesburg, did the mountains of sand attract my attention. I could not make out what these were and was told by a fellow passenger that they were sand deposits that remained after gold had been washed out of the crushed gold-bearing ore. Between the mine dumps, as the sand hills were called, and the railway lines were small ugly houses built of wood and iron – not an impressive entrance to the “Golden City”.”

And Goudvis writes:

“We arrived on the Rand in June 1911. I looked from the window as the train wound its way between the mines which lined the route from Germiston to Park Station. Here was evidence of great industry, black machinery raising skeleton limbs against a background of freshly quarried stone, a chain of trucks ascending and descending. Battery chimneys and the beat of stamps marked the approach to what men called the Golden City. (...) I thought Johannesburg was an ugly town with few buildings of architectural beauty. The spreading suburbs, however, offered green vistas with the trees and gardens beginning to emerge from the winter drought. Apart from its small centre, the town ran up and down many slopes. From their heights one glimpsed the background of mine dumps – multi-coloured, oddly shaped. Some seemed to have smooth surfaces, others were rugged and deeply ridged. People told me that they were ugly; a blot on the landscape, but I thought then unique; giving the city character, and in some lights they had a strange beauty.”

The recounting of lives such as these are invaluable in fleshing out history, literally makes history come to life.

Reading list:

Lelyveld, Joseph. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India

Leveson, Marcia, editor. South African Odyssey, an autobiography of Bertha Goudvis

Podlashuk, Pauline. Adventure of Life

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