Books – The making of a true mahatma

2011-05-28 13:17

Some years ago, British writer Patrick French ­visited the Sabarmati ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat, the site from which Mahatma Gandhi led his salt march in 1930.

French was so appalled by the noisome state of the latrines that he asked the ashram secretary whose job it was to clean them.

A sweeper woman stopped by for an hour a day, the functionary explained, but afterward things ­inevitably became filthy again.

But wasn’t it a central tenet of the Mahatma’s teachings that his followers clean up after ­themselves?

“We all clean the toilets together on Gandhi’s birthday,” the secretary answered, “as a symbol to show that we understand his message.”

Gandhi had many messages, some ignored, some misunderstood and some as relevant today as when first enunciated.

Most Americans – many middle-class Indians, for that matter – know what they know about the Mahatma from Ben Kingsley’s Academy Award-winning screen portrayal.

His was a mesmerizing performance, but the script barely hinted at the bewildering complexity of the real man, who was simultaneously an earnest pilgrim and a wily politician, an advocate of celibacy and the architect of satyagraha, a revivalist, a revolutionary and a social reformer.

It is this last avatar that interests Joseph Lelyveld most. Great Soul concentrates on what he calls Gandhi’s “evolving sense of his constituency and social vision”, and his subsequent struggle to ­impose that vision on an India at once “worshipful and obdurate”.

Lelyveld brings to his subject a reporter’s healthy scepticism and an old India hand’s stubborn fascination with the subcontinent and its people.

He assumes his readers are familiar with the basic outlines of Gandhi’s life.

And while the book includes a bare-bones chronology and is helpfully divided into South African and Indian sections, it moves back and forth so often it’s sometimes harder than it should be to follow the shifting course of Gandhi’s thought.

But Great Soul is a noteworthy book, nonetheless: vivid, nuanced and clear-eyed.

The two decades Gandhi spent in South Africa are too often seen merely as a prelude.

Lelyveld writes: “South Africa challenged him from the start to explain what he thought he was doing there in his brown skin.”

Initially, Gandhi was simply ­affronted that discriminatory laws and bigoted custom lumped educated well-to-do Indians like him with “coolies”, the impoverished mine, plantation and railroad workers who made up the bulk of the region’s immigrant Indian ­population.

The non-violent campaigns he waged to bring about equality ­between Indians and whites during the following 20 years would lead him – slowly and unsteadily, but inexorably – to advocate equality between Indian and Indian, first across caste and religious lines and then between rich and poor.

As Lelyveld shows, the outcomes of Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa were neither clear-cut nor long-lasting: after one, his own supporters beat him until he was bloody ­because they thought he’d settled too quickly for a compromise with the government.

But they taught him how to move the masses – not only middle-class Hindu and Muslim ­immigrants but the poorest of the poor as well. He had, as he himself said, found his “vocation in life”.

Soon after returning to India in 1915, Gandhi set forth what he called the “four pillars on which the structure of swaraj (self-rule) would ever rest”: an unshakable ­alliance between Hindus and Muslims; universal acceptance of the doctrine of non-violence, as tenet not tactic; the transformation of India’s approximately 650 000 villages by spinning and other self-sustaining handicrafts; and an end to the concept of untouchability.

Lelyveld shrewdly examines ­Gandhi’s noble but doomed battles to achieve them all.

Sometimes, Gandhi said Indian freedom would never come until untouchability was expunged, and sometimes he argued that ­untouchability could be eliminated only after independence was won.

He was unapologetic about that kind of inconsistency.

“I can’t devote myself entirely to untouchability and say: ‘Neglect Hindu-Muslim unity or swaraj’,” he told a friend.

“All these things are interdependent. You will find at one time in my life an emphasis on one thing, at another time on [an]other.”

Gandhi is still routinely called “the father of the nation” in India, but it is difficult to see what remains of him beyond what Lelyveld calls his “nimbus”.

His notions about sex, spinning and simple living have long since been abandoned. Hindu-Muslim tensions still smoulder just ­beneath the uneasy surface.

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 has”.

» Ward is a biographer and screenwriter, and is currently writing a book about the partition of India

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