Lelyveld's book, Great soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, is not yet available in India, which means much of the controversy has been generated based on a review of the book published mainly in Britain's tabloid Daily Mail
The review, published on 28 March, said the book claimed that Gandhi was 'bisexual' and was 'deeply in love with Hermann Kallenbach', a Prussian architect and bodybuilder who became Gandhi's disciple in South Africa.
"This is not a sensationalist book. I did not say Gandhi had a male lover. I said he lived with a man who was an architect as well as a body builder for nearly four years. The letters are part of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Volume 96, to be precise) published by the Government of
India. They are in the Indian National Archive. That particular volume was first published in 1994. In other words, the material I used contains no news," Lelyveld told PTI.
Much of the controversy has arisen over the conclusions in reviews about Gandhi's sexuality based on extracts of his letters published in the book. The extracts from correspondence available in the NAI suggest a close relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach, which has been interpreted as bisexual or homosexual.
The Gujarat government has banned the book, while Maharashtra government is planning to do the same.
Lelyveld has opposed the ban on his book, describing the move as shameful. "In a country that calls itself a democracy, it is shameful to ban a book that no one has read, including the people who are doing the banning," he said.
"They should at least make an effort to see the pages that they think offend them before they take such an extreme step. I find it very discouraging to think that India would so limit discussion," he added.
In the book, Lelyveld writes that Gandhi destroyed what he called Kallenbach's "logical and charming love notes" to him, in the belief that he was honoring his friend's wish that they should not be seen by anyone else. He writes, "But the architect saved all of Gandhi's, and his descendants, decades after his death and Gandhi's, put them up for auction. Only then were the letters acquired by the National Archives of India and, finally, published."
Lelyveld adds, "One respected Gandhi scholar characterised the relationship as 'clearly homoerotic' rather than homosexual, intending through that choice of words to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more. The conclusions passed on by word of mouth by South Africa's small Indian community were sometimes less nuanced. It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man."
The writer notes that only Gandhi's letters to Kallenbach have survived. He writes, "So it's Gandhi who provides the playful overtones that might easily be ascribed to a lover, especially if we ignore what else the letters contain and their broader context. Interpretation can go two ways here. We can indulge in speculation, or look more closely at what the two men actually say about their mutual efforts to repress sexual urged in this period".
The book reveals the influence Gandhi had on Kallenbach. In a 1908 letter, Kallenbach wrote to his brother Simon, "For the last two years I have given up meat eating; for the last year I also did not touch fish any more and for the last 18 months I have given up my sex life. I have changed my daily life in order to simplify it".
Lelyveld writes, "Later it is Kallenbach who points out to Gandhi the insidious tendency milk has to enhance arousal."
In the book, publisher Knopf says that Lelyveld "sets out to measure Gandhi's accomplishments as a politician and an advocate for the downtrodden against Gandhi's own expectations and in light of his complex, conflicted feelings about his place in Indian history."
The publisher adds: "Lelyveld traces the roots of Gandhi's philosophy of reform to South Africa, exploring in unmatched depth the campaigns for social justice he undertook there, and chronicling his continued efforts when he returned to India. We see why he became known as Mahatma but we also see clearly that he was unable to achieve all the goals he set for himself and his country, suffering bitter disappointment at this shortfall, most profoundly in 1947 when India was partitioned."