Mohandas Gandhi left an enormous paper trail of his thoughts. His collected works run into several volumes. Then there is his autobiography. His close associates Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal wrote extensively about Gandhi. His grandson Rajmohan wrote the comprehensive and objective Gandhi: The Man, His People and the Empire. The sheer size of the material can be daunting, and biographers could always sift through Gandhi’s thoughts (and he had thoughts about almost everything) to build a theory explaining his life. Jad Adams, a British broadcaster and historian whose previous works include an account of the Nehrus and biographies of Rudyard Kipling and Tony Benn (the leading light of “old” Labour), has read those sources to retell Gandhi’s life.
There is a buzz about the book because Adams wrote an article in The Independent newspaper a fortnight ago about Gandhi’s complex attitude to sex. But that’s only part of the book. The article focused on Gandhi’s idiosyncratic, peculiar, misogynist views about sex. And not only views, but also practices, such as sleeping naked with young women to test his resolve to overcome basic instincts. This, while he was married to Kasturba.
These incidents certainly clash with Gandhi’s saintly image, of an ascetic pursuing truth, but then V.S. Naipaul, Ved Mehta, and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, among others, have written about the incidents in some form. What’s surprising is that by focusing on those incidents, Adams seems to want to provoke a reaction. Here’s the puzzle: The book is primarily meant for readers in the West, who are presumably numbed by the sexual peccadilloes of their leaders. After Bill Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi, it seems, everything is passé. That, I suppose, is the point: These Western politicians have never been regarded as saints, whereas Gandhi has been. There are statues honouring him at Tavistock Square in London, near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, at Union Square in New York, at Embarcadero in San Francisco, and there are some 250 postage stamps.
Ladies’ man?: Gandhi had many women followers who accompanied him on his tours. Hindustan Times
But those honours are hardly Gandhi’s fault: He never asked for those; he said his life was his message. The crucial point is that, and unlike Clinton or Berlusconi, he refused to succumb to temptation (if he did, so long as force wasn’t involved, it shouldn’t concern any of us).
If these incidents have a place in the book, it has more to do with Adams’ desire to shake the Western view of seeing Gandhi as a holy figure. That problem starts with Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi, which elevated Gandhi, placing him on a pedestal; those eight Academy Awards canonized Gandhi among those who learn history through cinema. For the more high-brow, there is the opera of Philip Glass, Satyagraha, which sees Gandhi in a continuum, with Bhagvad Gita being chanted, and episodes named after Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist (whose religious writings inspired Gandhi), India’s own Rabindranath Tagore (with whom Gandhi differed on the nature of nationalism, but both had enormous respect for one another), and Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968, and who said he was inspired by Gandhi.
Adams challenges the canonization, but not in a polemical way. His aim is not to denigrate Gandhi (although that’s how it might seem to many readers in India, since taking offence has become a part of the Indian cultural trait); rather, to see him as a human being with human urges and some odd views who nonetheless left a deep imprint on world history.
Gandhi—Naked Ambition: Quercus, 323 pages, £20, (around Rs1,350).
There is far more to the book than Gandhi and sex. It is really about Gandhi’s emergence from being a shy, hesitant Gujarati lawyer too timid to speak in public, into a self-assured figure of moral authority. In the larger story, what emerges is Gandhi’s obstinacy.
Gandhi was stubborn, and the world was lucky that his stubbornness had such a benign end and scrupulous adherence to the right means, unlike his contemporary, Mao Zedong, in China (whose means and ends were both evil). Once Gandhi was convinced something was right, he refused to budge. In the hands of evil leaders—think of Osama bin Laden or Hitler, another contemporary—this could be catastrophic. His stubbornness allowed him to see clearly what was right and wrong, and that’s the other important thread in the book, leading up to Gandhi’s attitude towards the British, independence, and his conversations with Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
In his early years in South Africa, in fact, Gandhi imposed his obstinacy in an authoritarian manner, literally throwing out his young wife when she refused to clean the chamber pot of a houseguest. Gandhi’s aim was presumably noble: No work is demeaning; but when his wife wasn’t convinced, he became a tyrant. He also refused to let her keep jewellery, and he was far from being a model father. But again, those stories are hardly unknown in India: Gandhi himself writes about this; Shyam Benegal’s 1996 film, The Making of the Mahatma, recreates those stories; and Ajit Dalvi’s play, Mahatma vs Gandhi, deals with Gandhi as an imperfect father. But between a doting parent who demands less from his family than he does from others, and becomes a petty commissar, and a tyrant at home who leads by moral force in the public sphere, utilitarian logic would indicate that the latter is preferable. We expect our leaders to be consistent; we expect them to lead in every sphere. But the world isn’t like that. Brecht comes to mind: Andrea says, unhappy the nation without heroes; and Galileo responds, unhappy the nation in need of heroes.
Gandhi’s refusal to compromise on certain essentials exasperated his opponents because Gandhi would not use violent force (nor condone it) to get his way. But by going on a hunger strike, by being willing to bear the pain of imprisonment, he shamed the British empire. Think of what Judge Broomfield said when he had no choice but to send Gandhi to jail—he added that if the government could release him early, “No one will be better pleased than I.”
Gandhi: Naked Ambition, then, is a curious book. It tells the West, jaded by sexual scandals, of Gandhi’s behaviour and practices that are meant to shock, but may have the unintended effect of making his politics appear less radical than it was. And it tells India an aspect of Gandhi’s life it already knows but doesn’t talk about in public, a possible consequence of which would be to arouse nationalists to call for a ban on the book (which is always a bad idea), or to dismiss Gandhi’s importance, now that a British historian has laid all out in the open.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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