It never ceases to irritate me even after a decade in Europe: this tendency, in many European languages, to spell Gandhi as “Ghandi”. But there is a point to it. And once you get the point, you will also get the strengths and weaknesses of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.
Much of the controversy over the book in India had to do with Lelyveld’s depiction of the relationship of the Mahatma with Hermann Kallenbach, lifelong bachelor and body-builder. Though Lelyveld denied that his book claimed Gandhi was bisexual, it is clear that the book highlights a complex sexuality, with reference to that particular relationship.
But the point is not whether such a suggestion is valid or not. The book, in many ways, is an interesting study of a fascinating man. It is also not hostile to either Gandhi or India. It has a number of strengths, and only one major weakness: It is a book about Ghandi.
Faux name: ‘Ghandi’ is not meant as an insult to Gandhi. Wikimedia Commons
Take, for instance, even such a relatively simple matter as the growth of Gandhiji’s opposition to the caste system in South Africa. The initial pages trace this, implicitly, to a number of factors, all of which were valid and all of which—including the influence of Christian proselytisers—are West-facing. It fails to comment on the fact, noted but not developed, of the Bhakti and even Jain influence on Gandhi (and his family) or that Gandhi had been brought to South Africa to represent a group of Muslim businessmen. Both these factors are central to an understanding of Gandhi’s evolving scepticism about the caste system.
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The problem is not just the fact that Western scholars, inevitably, are more likely to focus on Western bridges. The problem is also that the generation of leaders to which Gandhiji belonged—whether Asian or African—were forced by circumstances to address a colonial and, hence, Western presence in their public pronouncements.
It is one of the fascinating things about Gandhiji that he developed from this position—a lawyer petitioning the Raj—to that of swaraj (self-rule), which finally went beyond the political. But it is also a fact that in his words Gandhiji seldom ceased to face the West. It is difficult today; it was impossible then. It was only in his evolving practice—including the garb Churchill never understood— that he consciously ignored the West and faced only his own peoples.
Unless this fact is borne in mind, all biographies of Gandhi will end up being biographies of Ghandi.
I am sometimes asked by aspiring writers to suggest a reading list. I tell them: Read as widely as possible. So here is something for those of you who like chick lit.
Susan Hatler, who writes humorous and emotional “young adult” novels, is out with her latest: The Boyfriend Bylaws. It is about Melanie Porter, who has been dumped—again. When others accuse her of “being in love with being in love”, she agrees to let her best friend, Patti, step in and direct her dating life with “the Boyfriend Bylaws”.
Kris Saknussemm’s new novel, Enigmatic Pilot, belongs to the category of fantasy literature. Its protagonist is a six-year-old boy who could not possibly exist in real life but is eminently believable—and a refreshing contrast to children in some recent non-fantasy novels who could exist in real life and remain irritatingly unbelievable. Enigmatic Pilot is a rip-roaring trip through a fantastic mid-19th century America, a “tall tale too true” written in the spirit of Mark Twain’s novelistic journeys.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org