Great Soul

Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

By Joseph Lelyveld

Knopf. 448 pp. $28.95. nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Madhusree Mukerjee


Great Soul has been banned in the western Indian state of Gujarat. "The writing is perverse," explains chief minister Narendra Modi - evidently because the book notes that Gandhi once loved, and perhaps desired, a man. Given the Mahatma's arguably greater passion for Hindu-Muslim amity, for which he laid down his life, Modi's rush to his defense is ironic. Modi himself is alleged to have facilitated religious riots in 2002 that killed about 2,000 Muslims - allegations credible enough that he has been denied a visa to the United States. In modern India, Gandhi's aura is routinely claimed by politicians whose actions evince contempt for his ideals.

Thus the controversy over Joseph Lelyveld's closely researched biography of Gandhi highlights the very contradictions he explores in the reformer's legacy. Rather than a linear tale, this is a sometimes wry but always clear-eyed weighing of Gandhi's achievements against his goals.

Invariably, the Mahatma fails to measure up. Protests degenerate into violence and have to be called off; supporters are alienated when his priorities or tactics change unpredictably; months or even years of striving and suffering yield pitifully meager concessions from adversaries.

"Yet," writes Lelyveld, "from a distance of more than seven decades, what stands out is the commitment rather than the futility."

The book opens in southern Africa, where Gandhi arrives in 1893 as a nattily dressed, London-trained, 23-year-old lawyer, far more involved with spiritual and dietary exploration than with law or public life. Encountering prejudice, he readily invokes racist logic to argue that educated Indians such as himself - but not blacks or impoverished Indian laborers, known as coolies - deserve privileges reserved for whites. He even strives to prove his loyalty to the British Empire by caring for the wounded in the Boer War and the Zulu rebellion.

But when he comes face to face with the brutalities inflicted on Zulus, as well as with a beaten-up coolie, Gandhi is shocked into an identification with the downtrodden that will only deepen. Over the years, his personal and political quests merge. By 1913, Lelyveld locates Gandhi in the stinking backyard of a tin shanty, sitting on an upturned box, cutting bread into chunks, making a hole in each piece with his thumb, filling it with sugar, and handing the pieces to the 2,000 coolies who have struck work.

"It's a picture to fix in the mind," Lelyveld writes: "Gandhi at the thick of his struggle, feeding his followers," whether Muslim or low-caste, "with his own hands."

Somehow a leader has been born - one who possesses, in the words of an Indian nationalist, "the marvellous spiritual power to turn ordinary men around him into heroes and martyrs." This power, which will revolutionize India's freedom movement after Gandhi returns there in 1914, is rigorously earned.

The Mahatma, as he is already known, eats the minimum that keeps him healthy - "because the full-mealers deprive their neighbors of their portion" - and will soon come to wear the least that suffices for decency. Although he spurns early efforts to draw him into a campaign against untouchability, he eventually travels 12,500 miles in nine months to speak, several times a day, on the issue. Warned that he may be attacked at a rally by those angered by his message of equality, he "serenely walks in on foot accompanied by four constables, parting a crowd of five thousand."

In the 1920s and early 1930s, nationalist leaders such as the future prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, defer to Gandhi, who alone can mobilize the tens of millions necessary to dislodge the British Raj. But when time comes to formulate policy, he is abandoned. They envision a powerful Indian nation, centralized and industrialized in the manner of the West; he believes in the dispersal of power to individuals living in self-sufficient and autonomous villages.

In 1946, as Indian independence draws near - an independence he has done more than anyone else to wrest - Gandhi places himself as far from New Delhi as possible, in a strife-torn district of what is now Bangladesh. Horrified at the religious bloodshed erupting across India, and agonized by the country's looming partition, he embarks on the last of his epic treks, barefoot through terrorized, burned-out villages. On occasion he clears with his own hands the feces deliberately strewn on his path. "What should I do, what should I do?" Gandhi is heard muttering despairingly to himself.

All that he has striven for his entire life is falling apart. Unable to stem the slaughter, he suspects "that his failure to work the miracle on which he was bent could be traced to some personal 'imperfection' or defect." So the 77-year-old embarks on controversial tests of his four-decade-long celibacy - a phase that Lelyveld describes with sensitivity. In Calcutta, shortly after independence in August 1947, Gandhi undertakes a fast unto death unless the killings stop, and this time, at least, murderers lay their arms at his feet. Gandhi has long foreseen his own fall to an assassin's bullet, which comes the next year in New Delhi.

India is today the world's largest arms importer - while the minds of almost half its children are stunted by malnutrition. Social workers inspired by Gandhian ideals can find themselves in prison or have their ashrams razed by the authorities, because their actions hinder the accretion of power to the powerful. In eastern India, a once-young woman named Irom Sharmila has fasted for more than 10 years against a vicious law, being forcibly kept alive by a tube through her nose.

Indeed, Gandhi failed to remake India, let alone the world - and yet, amazingly, men and women keep stepping up to continue the struggle. "We cannot command results, we can only strive," Gandhi had said, quoting an ancient Indian text - and that is the lesson one takes away from this sobering but oddly moving book.

Madhusree Mukerjee is the author, most recently, of "Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II."