Of all the seekers and spiritualists who were drawn to Mohandas K. Gandhi during his long, nonviolent struggle against British colonial rule, perhaps none stood out so vividly as a tall, broad-shouldered and rather imperious-looking Englishwoman named Madeleine Slade.
An admiral's daughter who spent part of her cosseted childhood in Bombay, Slade returned to the subcontinent in 1925 at the age of 33 to join Gandhi's ashram. She chopped off her hair, traded her Western clothes for an outfit of homespun cotton and embraced Gandhi's principles of simplicity and self-denial.
Gandhi, then 56, responded in kind. He gave Slade the name of Mira, after a mythical Hindu princess, and elevated her to the status of his foremost disciple, sitting with her every evening for an hour of quiet conversation while Slade massaged his feet with oil. Over the next two decades, he would write her nearly 500 letters.
But was there more to the relationship than met the eye?
That is the question that Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst known for his writings on Indian culture and spirituality, explores in "Mira & the Mahatma," a new novel that is causing a stir in India with its suggestion that sexual longing might have played a role in the mutual fascination between the eccentric Briton and the bespectacled ascetic revered by every Indian schoolchild as the "father of the nation."
Kakar draws heavily on Gandhi's actual letters to Slade, as well as her autobiography and other historical records, to arrive at what he describes as the "emotional truth" of the turbulent relationship between the two. He does not suggest that the relationship ever turned physical. But he does suggest that Slade fell passionately in love with Gandhi, who had taken a vow of celibacy, and that Gandhi may have been tempted by her affections before the intensity of her feelings caused him to all but banish her from his life, to her everlasting despair.
"No lover has ever given pain without being more pained," Gandhi wrote to Slade in 1929, after making it clear that he no longer wished to spend every evening in her company. "But such is my brutality toward those I love most. . . . May God remove what I consider is your moha," a Hindi word for infatuation.
In a telephone interview from his home in Goa, Kakar acknowledged the speculative nature of his conclusions regarding Gandhi and Slade, whose letters to Gandhi -- unlike his to her -- apparently have been lost to history. But Kakar said he is confident that Gandhi "discerned the sexual element" in Slade's strong feelings for him, in part because "he was struggling with the same sort of thing all of his life."
It was for that reason, Kakar said, that Gandhi ultimately "pushed her away."
Though hardly the stuff of scandal, Kakar's implication that the deep emotional connection between Gandhi and Slade had something other than a purely spiritual basis has raised eyebrows in a country accustomed to hagiographic portrayals in school textbooks and movies such as "Gandhi," the 1982 epic starring Ben Kingsley as the independence leader. Some of Ghandi's more ardent followers have staged public protests demanding that the book be withdrawn.
"The man doesn't understand Mahatma Gandhi," said Nirmala Deshpande, a member of Parliament and the head of a charitable trust established by Gandhi, referring to him with the title Mahatma -- Sanskrit for "great soul" -- by which he is commonly known. "It's not easy to understand great people who are on the spiritual plane. . . . Let us be humble that we cannot understand them, and let us not take the audacity to write on a subject that we don't understand."
Kakar says such criticism is to be expected in light of Gandhi's iconic status in this nation of more than 1 billion people. "Anything kind of human about Gandhi, even a hint that he might have . . . entertained feelings of any kind which are not completely spiritual . . . is offensive," he said.
Kakar is hardly the first scholar to attempt an unvarnished portrait of Gandhi. Others have written of his human failings. But Kakar's suggestion of sexual tension in Gandhi's relationship with Slade has proved controversial with some guardians of his memory.
There is little question that Gandhi formed an intense emotional bond with the admiral's daughter, who from an early age displayed a fascination with larger-than-life figures -- Beethoven was another -- and whose attachment to him was such that she became physically ill in his absence, according to one of Gandhi's biographers.
Despite her upper-crust pedigree, Slade adapted quickly to the spartan life of Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram in the state of Gujarat. She kept to a strict vegetarian diet, learned how to operate a spinning wheel and was given the job of cleaning the latrines. Gandhi rewarded her devotion with a one-room hut near his own, as well as his confidences and affection, writing her more letters than any other disciple in the course of their long affiliation, according to Kakar.
Eventually, however, Gandhi began to find Slade's adoration unsettling and sought to create some distance between them. During a prolonged separation in 1927, he specifically forbade her to visit him, saying it was for her own good. "You must retain your individuality," he wrote. "Resist me when you must." He then urged her to leave the ashram and to carry on his work elsewhere in India, which she did for more than a year, although Gandhi continued to write her frequently.
In 1929, Slade returned to the Sabarmati Ashram, where she was devastated to learn that Gandhi no longer desired her company every night. "None else would have felt like committing suicide over a simple innocent remark of mine," Gandhi scolded her in a subsequent letter. "This disease is idolatry. If it is not, why hanker after my company? Why touch or kiss the feet that must one day be dead cold? There is nothing in the body."
Despite Gandhi's admonitions, Slade remained devoted to him and to his work, accompanying him on a trip to Europe and traveling to the United States as his unofficial envoy. She eventually started her own ashram, and activities on behalf of India's independence movement earned her numerous stays in British colonial jails. Slade later fell in love with Prithvi Singh, a legendary Indian revolutionary, but he too spurned her affections. She left India in 1958 and moved to a town near Vienna, where Kakar, then a student, met her in 1965.
She refused to answer any of his questions about Gandhi. Slade died in 1982.