Book Review: Non-fiction/Biography, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld, Harper Collins, 425 pp; Rs699 (Hardback)
Joseph Lelyveld has written a generally timid book with lot of superstitious opulence’s about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi-infact his level of concentration is not applied on Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu of the world’s most successful democracy. Doing this, he starkly fails to see the persona of Mahatma in proper light who lead India to independence from Britain in 1947. With strict shortsightedness, Lelyveld’s "Great Soul" habitually over informed readers that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical practitioner-one who was often downright cruel to those around him. What this book exerts, Gandhi was closer to the 20th-century typical progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a broader concept while actually marginalising people as individuals.
On his journalistic assignments with New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld covered South Africa (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his book about apartheid, “Move Your Shadow”), and spent several years in the late 1960s reporting from India also. But that doesn’t make Lelyveld evidently enough qualified to write about Gandhi’s career on both sides of the Indian Ocean in the absence of fresh insights or simply relying on the fantasies rather much needed facts. So, he misses to bring his subject a reporter’s healthy skepticism and an old India hand’s stubborn fascination with the subcontinent and its people. This is not a proper biography, as it has enough elements of distracting less informed minds on Mahatma and keeping in prolong irritation to those who knows his works and life very deeply.
As desired by the author, even before the release of book, furore was sparked by local media reports, based on early reviews in the western press, some of which were extra focussed on passages in the book that suggested Gandhi had an intimate relationship with a German man named Hermann Kallenbach. Lelyveld has said his work was taken out of context. "I do not allege that Gandhi is a racist or bisexual in Great Soul," he told the Times of India. He added "The word 'bisexual' nowhere appears in the book" which is technically somehow right but absolutely false if the meaning of letters could be taken in basic account. These two unconfirmed references ideally streamline the subversive preoccupation of Lelyveld on Gandhi- that "how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance." Gandhi nicknamed himself "Upper House" and Kallenbach "Lower House," and he made Lower House promise not to "look lustfully upon any woman." The two then pledged "more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen."
Also "you are always before my mind's eye." Later, on his ashram, where even married "inmates" had to swear celibacy, Gandhi said: "I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women." You could even be thrown off the ashram for "excessive tickling." (Salt was also forbidden, because it "arouses the senses.") Throughout the book, Lelyveld has an unknown suspicion over Gandhi’s action…he reminds readers that Gandhi was very much an ordinary aspirant of material world once as he arrived in Durban from Bombay in 1893. Henceforth, he blindly wish to see the contradiction of early modern academic and professional grooming of Gandhi with his life after even his turning into Mahatma-the real case is, no such rift ever existed is his conviction or action!
Lelyveld’s easiest identification of Gandhi is as a “brown man”, and his struggle in South Africa nothing more than for living the common aspiration of the race, he belonged. His racial firmness stays further with taking the outcomes of Gandhi’s campaigns there, neither clear-cut nor long-lasting. More frequently, Lelyveld confuses the struggle with “weakness” and Gandhi’s search for a peaceful revolutionary idea which later made Britain a most ordinary entity after 1947 as “vocation.” Ruthlessly, he also tries to corner the history’s most egalitarian campaigns under Gandhi as the sort of indifferent acts from the motives of consensus that were as par him required to be in sync with ultra left, right and reactionaries. Moreover, against the will of history, Lelyveld seems trying hard to forge Ambedkar’s advent in Indian politics as the anti-thesis of Gandhi, which is worst treatment of the real conflict of interests that existed between two and their stands on caste.
In balancing return, Lelyveld also writes, while he may have “struggled with doubt and self until his last days,” Gandhi “made the predicament of the millions his own, whatever the tensions among them, as no other leader of modern times have.” He adds, Gandhi even with all his inconsistencies, his dream for India remained constant throughout his life. “Today,” Gandhi wrote less than three weeks before he was murdered, “we must forget that we are Hindus or Sikhs or Muslims or Parsis…It is of no consequence by what name we call God in our homes.” Gandhi was always willing to stand up for the Untouchables, just not at the crucial moment when they were demanding the right to enter in temples in 1920’s and ahead.
But soon, Lelyveld returns with the unfortunate citings, that he was equally worried about alienating high caste Hindus. "Would you teach the Gospel to a cow?" he asked a visiting missionary in 1936. "Well, some of the Untouchables are worse than cows in their understanding." But two sentences fall too short to level a charge for establishing him a dualist, what Lelyveld has virulently tries to assert as regular interference throughout the book and remains unsuccessful. Leaning opposite the departing covert rage, lastly Lelyveld hesitatingly admits that, revolutionary tone set by Gandhi through his incessant struggle based on unity against the oppressors from South Africa to India extended a rational model of resistance to the world. Question arises, why then hyper twists followed in his work before knowing his subject from close quarter?
Great Soul could be hardly called a serious work on Gandhi-its central argument is unclear and distortive that makes it vulnerable to be fall at the proper destination. Though who tempted to play with the history in their own terms, may like to call it a work of substance. There should be no surprise, even if Ben Kingsley’s impact on the image of Gandhi would be tried by few to compare with Great Soul in nasty effort of idolizing Gandhi in different unsafe frame! However, if India has its own long history, so it has her own history tellers...on Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha would be remain the authentic voice-his upcoming multi volume biography will certainly clear many unrealistic fogs surrounding the great Gandhi.
Atul Kumar Thakur
March 28, 2012, Wednesday, New Delhi