Jad Adams wrote a book on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to go with a four-part BBC programme by the same name in 1997. It was then that the idea of writing a biography of Gandhi occurred to him. When Quercus approached him a couple of years ago and asked what he would like to work on, he proposed Gandhi: Naked Ambition. Edited excerpts from an interview with Adams:
When so much has been written about him, why did you decide on another book on Gandhi?
Yes, there is quite a bit of Gandhi literature out there. One of the things I noticed was that everyone was looking at the previous biographies of Gandhi and reporting from what they had seen in the things written in the last decade or two. I was interested in looking at what Gandhi himself had actually said and what people close to him said when he was alive and immediately after his death. So I was looking at original source material and I thought that was a strategically different approach to justify a new biography.
New eye: The author. Courtesy Jad Adams
In the book you reveal that the picture of the Dandi march that was released was not the one that was clicked on the day. Tell us more about Gandhi’s penchant for symbolism.
It’s not so much that the photograph was faked—Gandhi did go to Dandi and he did pick up salt. But the images of Gandhi at Dandi beach weren’t very good. The images that were used and went around the world were, in fact, taken at a later date. The point is, people like to see Gandhi conforming to a certain image and this was a better picture to demonstrate that image.
Gandhi himself knew very well what his image was. In England he wore a top hat. In South Africa, at the height of his success, he started to dress like the Indian labourers who he was fighting for. Back in India he started using khadi. And once he got everyone wearing khadi, in 1921, he appeared at a Congress meeting wearing almost nothing himself and it was met with disbelief at the time that he was clothed this way. He never encouraged anyone else to do it. It was his personal image. It was a brilliant PR move.
Gandhi was already a very famous man, but after this he was represented in newspaper cartoons, newsreels and pictures as this almost naked man challenging the empire. It’s a very powerful image and it made him one of the most recognizable people in the world.
You write about Gandhi’s sex life and you are not convinced about his vows to be chaste?
Gandhi was a very spiritual man and in his early 30s he started to think about how he could best develop the spiritual side of his nature. He decided to embrace poverty and chastity. Poverty was relatively easy for him; chastity took a bit longer and he decided eventually that he would no longer have sexual intercourse with his wife.
As he went through his life, he had increasing contact with women—(he) would invite women into his bed and would later start inviting younger women and therefore more attractive women into his bed. He said his objective of doing it was to challenge himself. That someone who was (a) perfect brahmachari could be challenged by the most beautiful woman and would still remain chaste. I am afraid I question some of that. I look at what he’s doing and think, well, he’s actually receiving a very high level of physical contact even if he isn’t actually ejaculating—he isn’t completing the sexual act, but this is all (a) rather sexual thing to be doing. We talk about society having become quite sexualized—everything from table fans to motor cars are being sold with some element of sexuality, movies and pop videos are all full of sex and we say it’s a very sexualized society. We don’t say because I am not ejaculating, it’s not sexual.
Do you anticipate trouble with the book—that it could be deemed offensive or banned in India?
I didn’t think anyone would think of banning it. People have remarked about Gandhi’s sexuality before in biographies. Rajmohan Gandhi mentioned it in his Gandhi the Man, His People and the Empire. William Shearer in his biography of Gandhi in 1969 mentions it. It isn’t a secret and certainly wasn’t a secret when Gandhi was alive. He wanted these things to be spoken about and he instructed Pyarelal to write about sexuality. I believe that anything we do regarding Gandhi and his sex experiments has the permission of Gandhi to go ahead.