Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld – A Book Review
Joseph Lelyveld’s recently released biography of Gandhiji got an unexpected (and I should say well deserved) publicity boost from Gujarat’s Modi government which very kindly banned it. There have also been proposals to ban it in the rest of the country on the ground that it portrays Gandhiji in a bad light. Having just finished reading the book, I can tell you that it portrays Gandhiji in a new light, one which is not entirely flattering. Lelyveld approaches his subject with a clinical neutrality not unlike an Egyptologist putting forth a new theory on how the pyramids were built and does not draw too many conclusions – he leaves that to his readers. In my case, after reading Lelyveld’s account, I came away with the conclusion that Gandhiji was definitely a unique soul, a very shrewd soul and the most determined soul I’ve ever heard of. He was also, warts and all, was a very good and kind-hearted soul. But was he a Mahatma? I am not too sure of that, especially after digesting Lelyveld’s analyses.
Lelyveld is an established author whose book (about apartheid) 'Move Your Shadow: South Africa Black and White' won the Pulitzer. He used to report on South Africa for The New York Times. Later in the late 1960s, he reported on India and one gathers from his narration in 'Great Soul' that he visited many of the places in South Africa and India where Gandhiji lived or led agitations against British rule. Altogether, Lelyveld worked for the New York Times for around 40 years, which included a long stint as its executive editor.
At the outset, Lelyveld makes it clear that his approach is to minutely examine certain periods of Gandhiji’s life, ignoring his childhood and the time he spent in England as he trained to be a barrister. The idea is to make sense of Gandhiji’s beliefs, value systems and understand what he stood for and aspired to achieve. There are many important questions that Lelyveld grapples with in his book. What were Gandhiji’s views on indentured Indian labourers in South Africa (derogatively referred to as coolies) and native South Africans? Did he think coolies and blacks were less deserving of equal treatment from the ruling Whites than educated Indians like himself? Did Gandhiji oppose the caste system as ardently as he should have? Gandhiji fought against untouchability, but did he fight just as hard against the caste system? Did he consider attainment of independence by India much, much more important than fighting caste?
There are instances where Lelyveld makes it clear that Gandhiji’s accounts of past events as described in his autobiography were not entirely accurate. This also goes for famous biographies on Gandhiji by individuals like Louis Fischer. For example, Gandhiji’s account of his stint during the Boer war leading stretcher bearers who evacuated wounded British soldiers gives the impression that he and those under him were exposed to serious danger as they worked. Fischer’s biography actually says, ‘For days they worked under the fire of enemy guns.’ The reality, Lelyveld suggests, was a bit different. Gandhiji or his stretcher carrying comrades were never in serious danger as they evacuated wounded British soldiers and not a single one of the eleven hundred stretcher bearer was ever killed for the entire duration of the war, which resulted in horrendous losses even for the winning British. There are a number of other instances where Lelyveld shows Gandhiji’s subsequent descriptions to be at variance with what actually transpired. Did Gandhiji’s memory of what had transpired fade, causing him to project himself in a more favourable light? Unlikely, especially because even in later years Gandhiji would insist that journalists accompanying him should allow him to edit their transcripts of his speeches, so that the end product was always different from what he had actually said.
Lelyveld shows Gandhiji to be a man who constantly changed (and improved) himself. When he initially arrived in South Africa, he was yet another educated Indian, one who did not worry too much about coolies, one who was more interested in religion and vegetarianism, one who wanted Whites to put educated Indians (like him) on par with them. During the Boer War and the Bambatha revolt by the Zulus, Gandhiji sided with the British. However, he underwent a great deal of soul searching after seeing the extremely harsh treatment of Zulus by the British. What right did educated Indians have to demand equal treatment from the British when they were incapable of treating all other Indians as equals? How could Indians practising untouchability expect Whites to give them equal rights? These questions tormented Gandhiji and a year before he left South Africa for good, he marched with thousands of poor indentured labourers as they opposed the £3 tax imposed on indentured labourers who wished to stay on in South Africa at the end of their tenures.
Lelyveld does not find evidence to show that Gandhiji felt much sympathy for the native African struggle for their rights. Nor was there any interaction with native African leaders, though he had met and was a neighbour of John Dube, the great Zulu leader. In fact, some of Gandhiji’s descriptions of native Africans are downright racist even for those times. Towards the end of his life in India, Gandhiji would show much greater appreciation for African rights, but these never really went beyond platitudes. On the other hand, before we berate Gandhiji, let’s not forget that even now, over 60 years after Gandhiji’s death, there a very few Indian or even Asian leaders who show much affinity for Africa and its struggles.
Just as Gandhiji’s outrage at the injustices suffered by indentured coolies was an acquired virtue, his ire at untouchability was also not inborn. Rather it evolved over a period of time. At times, the man who spent a lot of time emptying chamber pots and disposing of human faeces showed a clear unwillingness to fight caste. When the agitation at Vaikom to open up Hindu temples to untouchables was on, Gandhiji’s support was lukewarm. In fact, he ordered a local Congress leader, George Joseph, to not take part since he wasn’t a Hindu, effectively ending George Joseph’s career as a freedom fighter. A Cambridge graduate called Malcolm Muggeride teaching at Alwaye (sic, renamed around ten years ago as Aluva, a town in Kerala, very close to Kochi) saw Gandhiji arrive by train, travelling third class. Muggeride’s account says that Gandhiji’s face showed no special emotion as he was greeted by notables and cheering students. However, he later found some untouchables in a roped-off enclosure. Brushing past cheering students and notables waiting to garland him, Gandhiji went over to the untouchables and started singing with them. Which was the real Gandhiji? Lelyveld wonders and does not provide an answer.
Gandhiji was the main Indian leader responsible for making India’s freedom struggle a mass-based movement. He could connect with the people. However, he did not connect with Ambedkar who took the stand that Gandhiji was not doing enough for the Dalits. As happened during the Vaikom agitation, there were a number of instances where it appeared that Gandhiji wanted to preserve the caste system (minus untouchability) rather than do away with it. Time and again we find Gandhiji asking the untouchables to give up meat and drink and imitate the upper castes, if they wanted to go up the social ladder. Did Gandhiji find it difficult to accept that untouchables who ate meat and drank liquor should also be entitled to equal standing in Indian society? Why should Gandhiji want them to conform to upper caste values to gain acceptance? However it cannot be denied that imitating the upper castes, a process described by reputed Indian sociologists as 'sanskritisation', has been followed by many lower castes as they moved up the Indian social ladder. So, Gandhiji’s advice was definitely practical and would have helped achieve the desired result, though it would definitely fail modern day tests for political correctness.
Lelyveld does not hesitate to discuss Gandhiji’s personal life, his (claims to) chastity, his platonic and perfunctory relationship with his wife and his (disfunctional) relationship with his sons. The alleged homosexual affair with Herman Kallenbach takes up many a page and I will not divulge much except to say that Gandhiji and Kallenbach fondly called each other Upper House and Lower House. Lelyveld dangles the possibility that the relationship was merely homoerotic (where both men found each other attractive) and not necessarily homosexual. I’ll leave it to you to read this book and find out more.
Lelyveld says that Gandhiji was a man of many causes, but the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity was closest to his heart, possibly as close as that of Swaraj which later morphed into the demand for independence. Gandhiji always had a close relationship with Muslims. His initial clients in South Africa were mainly Muslims and the first agitation he launched after returning to India was the Khilafat movement through which he hoped to create Hindu-Muslim unity. During the partition riots, Gandhiji’s presence in Noakhali helped reduce tensions and fewer people died than would have if he hadn’t been there. This despite the fact that for most of his time at Noakhali, Gandhiji was shunned by local Muslims. Muslims demanded that Gandhiji should go to Bihar where Hindus were slaughtering Muslims. Gandhiji himself wanted to go to Punjab where large scale massacres were taking place. Just before partition Gandhiji managed brief trips to Patna and Lahore, but rushed back towards Noakhali to keep his promise to be there for 15 August. He never made it to Noakhali since Calcutta needed him more. Everyone seemed to want Gandhiji to be with them as riots engulfed Northern India. After independence, and after preventing what could have been horrendous bloodshed in Calcutta, Gandhiji went to Delhi and there he continued to perform his magic till Godse’s bullets claimed him. Could Gandhiji have managed his itinerary better or more effectively? Should he have gone to the Punjab rather than stay in Delhi? Don’t look to Lelyveld for an answer.
I found Lelyveld’s neutrality on every issue tolerable and at times even comforting, except when he talks of Gandhiji’s experiments (on a mattress) with his seventeen year old grandniece Manu. Not only does it appear (to me) that Gandhiji groomed Manu through correspondence to join him, it also appears that Gandhiji knew full well that the outside world would look at his experiments with askance, though he did talk about them freely. Why else would he send a telegram to Manu’s father, his nephew, on the lines of “If you and Manu sincerely anxious for her to be with me at your risk, you can bring her,” even though it was his idea in the first place? I found it inexcusable for Lelyveld to not to be outraged. I was. Instead, Lelyveld merely comments that “the telegram to her father was oddly worded” Lelyveld goes on to say that “Gandhi made it sound as if he were giving in to the wishes of father and daughter. In fact, he’d planted the idea himself and cultivated it in an epistolary campaign spanning months.” Is Lelyveld flat monotone a form of sarcasm? Lelyveld has titled his work 'Great Soul'. Is that meant to be tongue-in-cheek? I don’t know.
Have Gandhiji’s teachings on ahimsa and non-violence made a difference to the contemporary world? Lelyveld does not offer a conclusive answer though he plants evidence on both sides of the argument. Lelyveld tells us of a visit (during the apartheid era, 18 years after Gandhiji’s death) to the remains of the Phoenix Settlement in South Africa where a trustee of the settlement told him that “Passive resistance doesn’t have a chance against this government. It’s too brutal and persevering.” Lelyveld also tells us about a memorial ceremony held in the year 2009 in Dacca, Bangladesh, where Hindus and Muslims took part and Christian, Muslim and Hindu songs were sung.
On the whole this is a very good book for anyone curious to know more about Gandhiji, but at the end, the reader ends up with more questions than at the beginning.