On the 70th anniversary of Gandhi’s death, he tells Lounge about the shifts in his own perspective as a researcher and the surprises he has encountered while grappling with the Mahatma’s complicated legacy. In spite of his staunch principles, Gandhi was vulnerable to conflicts and contradictions, which resulted in a misreading of his philosophy but also made him inimitably human. Edited excerpts:
For how many years have you been working on Gandhi?
I’ve been interested in Gandhi all my professional life, for over 30 years now. Over time, I’ve only got closer to him. I thought of the two-volume biography, in a focused way, maybe 15 years ago. My earlier work was on environment, and most of the environmentalists I met, or the Chipko movement I wrote about, had a connection with Gandhi. Then I wrote a biography of anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who had a complicated father-son, love-hate, antagonistic relationship with Gandhi. After that, I did a book about the social history of cricket and Gandhi was everywhere there too, because of the politics of caste and religion on the cricket field. I feel I’ve been shadowed by him all my life.
How has your perception of Gandhi changed since the time you started working on the biography?
Essentially, I’ve got to know Gandhi—his ideas, relationships and politics—in much richer detail. It’s not as if I’ve fundamentally changed my views of him or have had an epiphanic moment. My understanding of his life became much more nuanced in texture. I’ve learnt more about the characters who shaped him and who have now been practically written out of history, like his Jewish friends in South Africa. In India, Mahadev Desai, his secretary, who is a major presence in the second volume, was much more important to Gandhi than (Jawaharlal) Nehru, (Vallabhbhai) Patel, Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) or Rajendra Prasad.
The one striking aspect of Gandhi that came to me during my research is his phenomenal global impact during his lifetime. The interest he evoked in countries he never visited, in places he probably never knew about, in writings about him in different languages, was staggering in a pre-internet, pre-television world. Take, for example, the humorous ads by a suiting company in The New York Times in the 1930s, joking about the fact that he wore no clothes: “Gandhi doesn’t need our suits, and that’s his choice. But you need them for these reasons," etc.
More seriously, while we know of French thinker Romain Rolland’s book on Gandhi, I found the Peruvian left-wing radical José Carlos Mariátegui also wrote about him in an unusual way. I came upon his correspondence with a radical German priest, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who rebelled against Hitler and was executed. He wanted to come to India and apprentice with Gandhi to learn non-violent resistance, after Hitler came to power in the 1930s. Even small European countries like Czechoslovakia, Finland were inviting Gandhi to visit, writing and staging plays about him.
Were there many surprises about Gandhi as a human being?
However democratic he was in his dealings with the party and however courteous he was to his opponents, in his ashram Gandhi was a tyrant. The meticulous organization of the life of the ashram bears this out as well as the bizarre letters he would write from jail—on diet, health, clothing, how to spin and, of course, on brahmacharya (celibacy). There’s quite a bit in my book about his asceticism as an ashramite, the demands he made on himself as well as his disciples.
Among the other characters that I have discovered more details about is the early Bengali feminist Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (Rabindranath Tagore’s niece). Gandhi wrote some of his most passionate letters to her. He was, in fact, dreaming about her. But he was advised to abandon the relationship and she felt betrayed by his decision to withdraw, which was linked to his later experiments with brahmacharya.
What does it mean to be a Gandhian now, 70 years after his death?
Four aspects of his life and thought are of contemporary, and possibly enduring, significance. They speak to us 70 years after he’s gone.
The first is the efficacy of non-violence, not just the moral legitimacy but also the political efficacy of non-violence as a strategy of protest. If you want to settle a dispute within a country—say, between peasants and landlords—non-violence is always more effective in the long run. Gandhi was prophetic about it. He told Bhagat Singh, if he used violence, the government would come back with more violence. And that’s exactly what’s happening in the Naxalite areas now. Non-violence is in between being a supplicant—appealing to your master—and shooting him; using, instead, the moral force of non-violence to shame him.
The second is his work on inter-religious relations. Gandhi was in between a radical atheist and a fundamentalist. He didn’t say all religions are wrong, nor did he claim his religion was totally right. He tried to negotiate a way in which people of different faiths could see their imperfections mirrored in others, a practice that enables tolerance and understanding.
Third: Gandhi’s environmental precociousness. He warns early that if India industrializes like the West, it will strip the world like locusts.
And finally, the personal openness of Gandhi’s life: We know all about his eccentricities, mistakes and choices because he wrote about them in his own magazine. And what he left out, the editors of the collected works put back together.
Wasn’t he also a moral custodian? As Sheela Reddy writes in her book on Ruttie Jinnah’s marriage to M.A. Jinnah, boys and girls of different religions falling in love with each other were sent to Gandhi’s ashram to be reformed by him.
When we look at Gandhi’s views on caste or inter-religious marriage, we impose the common sense of the 21st century on the early 20th century. That’s a problem. Gandhi forbade his own son Manilal from marrying a Muslim. To get Hindus and Muslims on the same platform was the most radical act possible in the early years of the 20th century. So supposing Manilal had married a Muslim girl, what would have happened when Gandhi had just started to bring Hindus and Muslims together in a compact against foreign colonial rule? He would have been accused of what we now call “love jihad". Women were not even out in public life then. We couldn’t possibly expect him to have allowed them at the time to choose their romantic partners irrespective of caste and religion. The whole movement for independence would have collapsed.
Why is Gandhi so susceptible to being appropriated both by the left and the right?
Gandhi is impossible to classify in terms of conventional political categories. Was he a socialist, conservative, liberal or all of these? He was a true original. The left came to a belated recognition of the moral greatness of Gandhi, especially because of what he did for Hindu-Muslim harmony. For a long time, the left claimed that non-violence was a devious way to wean the masses away from the revolutionary path, but its attitude changed after what Gandhi did in 1947 for communal harmony. The right essentially dislikes Gandhi. It is profoundly ambivalent about him but instrumentally knows it cannot reject him outright. So it tries to make him more of a Hindu, assimilate him into a line of Hindu saints, but anyone on social media would know the Hindu right detests Gandhi.
Compared to the way he’s perceived in India, it would seem Gandhi has remained frozen in his saint-like status in the West.
The complexity of Gandhi is more or less flattened in the West, unless we are talking about extreme right-wing denunciation. (American folk singer and activist) Joan Baez tells a great story in her autobiography about her daughter, who, at 11, asked her father if Gandhi had a vagina. When he tells her no, he had a penis, she goes, “I know that but I thought he may have had both, since he was so nice." This story shows that to the West, Gandhi transcends national, religious and gender differences and remains someone who spread peace and harmony. In India, he’s much more intensely debated on specific issues of caste, gender, religion and non-violence.
So who was Gandhi—a cosmopolitan thinker, a Hindu, a shrewd politician?
All of them. He was a heterodox Hindu, a freedom-loving Indian, a citizen of this country, but with an interest in the whole wide world, a patriot who was not a jingoist and willing to learn from other nations. He often changed his mind if he found criticism just. The two great examples of this are his exchanges with (B.R.) Ambedkar and Tagore. While Tagore turned him into a true cosmopolitan, 20 years of debate with Ambedkar made him more critical of the caste system. He nurtured disciples, made leaders out of followers—Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, J.B. Kripalani. Whereas Tagore, Nehru and Ambedkar had either disciples and acolytes or critics and adversaries, Gandhi left behind able successors. He was an astute team-builder.
■ What might a Gandhian constitution have looked like?
■ What if the Mahatma had lived?
■ A note without Gandhi
■ The Mahatma and the movies
■ Mahatma Gandhi’s Jewish soulmate