Often controversies turn out to be good excuses for learning new things. Many issues have come and gone, leaving us richer for the experience. And so it would be the right time to talk about Hermann Kallenbach, the German-Jewish-South African architect and close friend of Mahatma Gandhi.
Sixty-six years after his death Kallenbach is in the news. He has been badly misrepresented and the general public, who fancy discussing Gandhi either in order to praise, abuse or judge him, have based their reaction only on media reports. Allegedly, Kallenbach is supposed to have had sexual relations with the Father of the Nation.
But, if go deeply into the life of Kallenbach, we discover an interesting journey. He was born in 1871, the third eldest out of seven children of a Jewish family. His father Kalman Leib Kallenbach was a Hebrew teacher and later, a timber merchant.
A biography of Hermann Kallenbach, written by Isa Sarid, the daughter of his niece Hanna Lazar and Christian Bartolf, depicts Kallenbach's personality and his friendship with Gandhi very deeply.
Kallenbach's childhood centered round education, sports and friendships with the village youth. An architect, Kallenbach left for South Africa in August 1896 to join his uncles in Johannesburg where a major transformation in his life was to take place.
Kallenbach was a skilled ice-skater, swimmer, cyclist and gymnast. He was introduced to Gandhi by their common friend RK Khan. It was then that Kallenback and Gandhi had long discussions on religious issues and a variety of topics. These led to a lasting friendship between the two, an aspect of Gandhi's life that was hitherto hardly known to the public.
In the biography of Kallenbach, Sarid quotes a letter of Kallenbach to his brother Simon which states: "We are leading a most unusual life which helps a person to develop more independently, and the person becomes better."
Both were an influence on each other. In his book 'Gandhi as disciple and mentor', author Thomas Weber has noted that, "But the influences were not all one way and even if, again in this important relationship Kallenbach was the junior partner."
While it is widely known that Kallenbach gave his 1,100 acres plot of land to Gandhi for his 'Tolstoy Farm', he had also accompanied Gandhi in his first penitential fast at Phoenix in 1913 over the 'moral lapse' of two inmates. Also, Kallenbach acted as a manager during Gandhi's 'The Epic March — Satyagraha' movement in South Africa.
Sarid and Bartlof noted in Kallenbach's biography that, "They (Gandhi and Kallenbach) addressed each other as 'Lower House' (Kallenbach) and 'Upper House.' Kallenbach was the 'Lower House' and Gandhiji the 'Upper House' - the 'Lower House' preparing the budget and the 'Upper House' vetoing large chunks of it!"
The biographers further note, "Gandhi exaggerated tremendously in order to reveal the truth, his educational methods often were too strict for not only his nearest and dearest ones but also for his European friends. Gandhiji had expressed great distress to Kallenbach over a couple of incidents.
But for Kallenbach that feeling was his proudest possession. He had written, "But I saw the reason for his distress over these incidents. He lavished his affection on me and therefore dealt with me more severely than he would have done with others. That was the tyranny of his affection, but that affection is my proudest possession."
However, Kallenbach was interned as an 'Enemy Alien' at detention camps and shifted to the Isle of Man as a prisoner of war from 1915 to 1917. He had accompanied Gandhiji and Kasturba on their final voyage from South Africa to London in 1914. Yet, even after this, correspondence between the two soul-mates continued. After his release in 1917, till 1937, Kallenbach returned to his family and his profession.
He visited India to meet Gandhi once again in 1937 at Tithal in Gujarat. The architect once again became a simple man, participating in all the activities of Gandhi's ashram life. Kallenbach wrote, "I join the whole programme… It is 'almost' as the old joint life, as if the 23 years, with all the events that affected millions of people, had disappeared." Kallenbach met Gandhi once more in 1939, which turned out to be their last meeting.