JULY 21, 2019
WRITING GANDHI’S BIOGRAPHY is a tall order. The man has enjoyed a considerable posthumous presence, not only in India but in many parts of the world. More than 100 countries have issued postage stamps in his honor, countless streets have been named after him around the world, and he has helped inspire many major civil rights movements over the past century. Globally, there may be more university courses on Gandhi than on any other 20th-century figure. Hundreds of biographies have been written, the first one, over a hundred years ago, by a Christian missionary named Joseph Doke. What else could one possibly write about someone like Gandhi?
It turns out, quite a lot. Gandhi had a rich tapestry of a life, with global events folded into it. His own writings are of an enviable size (the Collected Works come in a 100-volume set), continuing to tempt writers with their riches. Then, recently, a vast amount of biographical material held by Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary between 1942 and 1948, was released to the general public. Ramachandra Guha — a lifelong Gandhi-phile — could not have resisted the temptation to finally write Gandhi’s biography and, in some sense, to settle his scores with Gandhi.
The book, written in engaging prose, takes the reader on a step-by-step journey, episode by engrossing episode. Guha decides which stations to halt and spend some time at, and he does it with great care. He takes us through Gandhi’s speeches and travels, his daily chores, his conversations and correspondences, his decisions and choices, the impression he made on people and the impressions they made on him, his worldview and the world’s view of him. An honest narrator of the various complexities of the Mahatma’s life, Guha has taken care to treat his material evenly, with balance and proportion. One descends into his book as one would into a mine, deciding for oneself what to extract from the wealth of Gandhi’s life.
This monumental book (spanning over 1,000 pages) starts with Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa in 1915 and ends with an account of his assassination. Guha divides the volume into five parts: the first (up to 1922) focuses on his efforts to absorb the reality of India, his experimentation with Satyagraha (truth-force), and his ascent to political leadership; the second (through 1931) is dedicated to Gandhi’s moral and political engagements in his ashram, in India, and beyond; the third highlights Gandhi’s stint with untouchability between 1931–1937; the fourth (building up toward 1944) anatomizes Gandhi’s political conflicts and his confrontations with the British; and the fifth documents his last four years, consumed as they were by demands for partition, the resultant violence, and the loss of some of his closest aides.
The book has at least three remarkable aspects. First, there are the Mahatma’s encounters with non-political figures, which generate rare amusements for the reader. For instance, when C. V. Raman (the second Indian to win a Nobel Prize) met Gandhi, he felt they were both deeply conceited; when the then-unknown Sahni brothers (Balraj and Bhisham, aspiring actor and writer, respectively) came to interview Gandhi in the ashram, they noticed an awful-smelling gentleman who approached when they had bothered Gandhi long enough. American feminist Margaret Sanger and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, visiting Gandhi at different times and in different circumstances, found him pretty uninspiring. A more uplifting visit, by S. S. Tema, a Johannesburg pastor and member of African National Congress, reminds us that Gandhi continued to revise his views on many issues, including the disdain for blacks he held in his youth (in December 2018, University of Ghana students removed the statue of “racist” Gandhi). And then there was the planned, but never realized, visit by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose future opposition to the Nazis would get him executed in 1945. Could such a visit have contained the seeds of nonviolent resistance to Nazi Germany, one wonders. Guha also carefully follows the evolution of Gandhi’s relationship with his four sons, from tension and estrangement to paternalism and affection.
A second significant feature of the book is its chronicling of Gandhi’s daily routine, with all its peculiarities: his ability to fall asleep in three minutes, his meticulous planning, his editorial adeptness. He woke up invariably at 3:30 a.m. and had a hot shower, followed by a breakfast of goat’s milk and boiled vegetables (his frugal diet was dominated by fruit and nuts). The details Guha presents reflect Gandhi’s obsession to keep everything about his life open and transparent — sometimes painfully so.
Finally, the book details the complexity of Gandhi’s relationships with dominant political figures. Not everything, we learn, was straightforward. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, disagreed on the model for an independent India’s economy: while Gandhi favored a village system, Nehru preferred large-scale, Soviet-style industrialization. Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the last governor-general of India, never took part in Gandhi’s Quit India movement, just as Rabindranath Tagore had renounced Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement. Most people today would consider Subhash Chandra Bose — who reconfigured the Indian National Army, set up to fight the British during World War II — to be someone estranged from Gandhi, but the book reveals a more complex reality. The most interesting and remarkably detailed portrayals are of Gandhi’s relationships with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who pushed for Partition and the formation of Pakistan, and with B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchables and the architect of the Indian Constitution. Guha illuminates so many ideological fissures in Indian politics that one wonders whether there was any cohesiveness at all. Even on the day of his death, Gandhi was busy placating Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s anger against Nehru, in addition to penning a letter that suggested the disbanding of the Indian Congress.
As for motivations and deeper causes, one is left to speculate, because Guha does not pass judgment. He is careful not to promise or offer any grand narrative: there is no central argument or even much critical analysis. And perhaps this is the book’s biggest disappointment: the author doesn’t dwell on the whys of Gandhi’s life. On the other hand, Guha’s biography excels at delineating the voluminous whats of that life, capturing the many layers of Gandhi’s vivid and historically consequential experiences.
For Gandhi scholars, the book has much to offer. Guha addresses issues that have divided — or eluded — biographers for a long time. We learn, for example, of Gandhi’s platonic yet passionate relationship with Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, Tagore’s niece, with whom at one point he contemplated a “spiritual marriage.” And we are told of Gandhi’s “experiments” with Manu Gandhi, his niece, with whom he slept naked to test his brahmacharya (celibacy). Guha also unearths new evidence that Manu had been resisting a courtship proposal from Pyarelal, and this arrangement would have signaled her spiritual purity, however complicated that may sound to the uninitiated.
A biography of this scope often raises a number of questions. We know, for instance, that Gandhi was a little-known entity when he returned to India. Yet within five years, he became the country’s most important political leader. What exactly happened in this short span of time that changed his status so dramatically? Guha doesn’t provide an adequate answer. One also wonders how Gandhi was able to attract such significant resources for his ashram and his causes; specific instances of funding are vividly described, but we never learn why the money was given. Guha also is silent on why people revered Gandhi so much, and how he was able to successfully promote his views among such a diverse populace. When he requested that temples be opened to the untouchables, many did as he asked (something even the Indian Supreme Court could not achieve without resorting to violence, as when it recently ordered that the gates of a Hindu shrine in Kerala be opened to women). Lord Mountbatten, India’s last British viceroy, wrote to Gandhi expressing amazement at how the Mahatma’s mere presence in Bengal significantly reduced the communal rioting there, while a force of 50,000 soldiers was unable to achieve anything similar in the Punjab. For all the book’s exhaustive length, the reader is still left with a sense of intrigue about its subject.
Guha hops from episode to episode, telling us what Gandhi did or said, or what happened to him on a given day, without much of a skeleton of thought to tie it all up. But perhaps he had no other option. After all, his hero was a man who spent his life advancing Hindu-Muslim unity and preventing partition, and yet he ended up being killed by a Hindu fanatic who saw him as responsible for the partition. Gandhi’s life offered no clear, linear narrative, so maybe expecting Guha to attempt one in his book is unfair.
Political leaders around the world have sought to appropriate Gandhi for their own causes, good or bad, just as writers constantly negotiate their positions when writing about him. Guha’s epilogue, “Gandhi in Our Time,” usefully explores the ironies of Gandhi’s posthumous career. And there were so many, starting with his funeral ceremony: the apostle of peace and nonviolence was taken to the cremation ground in a weapon carrier!
Gandhi continues to defy and provoke us. Responding to a journalist, he once said: “My life is my message.” Guha’s massive efforts to recreate that life and message are laudable.