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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi

When Joseph Lelyveld’s book ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India’ was published in spring of 2011, some shallow soul must have whispered that Gandhi has been described as homosexual and racist. The book was condemned before anybody had physically seen it and much less read it. And irony was that the first state to ban the book was that of Gandhi, Gujarat and the person who moved resolution in the state legislature in the state capital named Gandhi Nagar was none other than thuggish Narender Modi, who happened to oversee the worst pogrom perpetrated that killed thousands of Muslims in the state and rest hurtled into ghettos. Nothing could be more bizarre than Modi proscribing a reverential book based on a person who gave up his life for minorities’ rights. And not be left behind Maharashtra followed the suit. Thus, the book by Joseph Lelyveld became another victim of Indian fetish for intolerance and outright ignorance. All those strange reactions and actions must have caught Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former executive editor of The New York Times off the guard and peeved him to a certain extent.

Mr. Lelyveld spent time as correspondent in India and South Africa and that is where he developed interest in Gandhi. The book itself reflects a thorough research and extensive use of the existing material on Gandhi as well extended visits to the places that Gandhi roamed in his life-time. The author has been able to put events and life of Gandhi in the perspective of the time in which he lived with thorough evidential corroboration and where such evidence lacked he has admirably refrained to insert his own interpretation. Gandhi’s life was not that of any other person, nevertheless, it had all the complexities of any human being. His sojourn in South Africa, more than twenty years long, was the reason why he became Mahatma Gandhi. Though he went there to act as an interpreter in a law suit between two litigating Guajarati Muslims traders, by the time he returned to India in 1914 he was already a leader and visionary. But then the streak of rebellion was always there; in his first court appearance when judge asked Gandhi to remove his turban he stomped off and shot a letter of protest to a newspaper. Even, in his much publicized eviction from the first class train compartment; he didn’t relent and continued his journey in the first class compartment from the very station where he was thrown out previous day. But his graduation as mass leader happened in phases and his vision came from many influences and he never stopped experimenting. He helped British in Boer war and in war against Zulus and then led resistance movement against anti-Indian legislations. He did not embrace low caste indentured workers to start with and did not think much about them; but then he lived with them and led movement on their behalf that ultimately made him a mass leader. It would be pertinent to point that another visionary Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated slavery in United States of America, did not think much of blacks when he became President or even until he went into the civil war to preserve union. Gandhi’s ignorance about untouchables at the time point could be disappointing but then it must be a very orthodox age of taboos, some of which survive in the country into the 21st century. He himself was proscribed by his caste people for crossing sea to go to England for studying law.

Gandhi’s non-violence was influenced by writings of Leo Tolstoy with immediate inspiration coming from reading John Ruskin’s ‘Unto This Last’ in an overnight train journey. One of the strongest influences on his conscience purportedly has been that of Theosophist movement and through it that of Tolstoy. Gandhi was visionary as much as realist. It was that realist in Gandhi that confined him to fighting for the rights of Indian community. It took almost another century before native black majority attained full rights. Upon return to India in 1914, before plunging into national movement of Indian National Congress, which until then consisted of arm-chaired politicians, he toured the country where poverty, hunger and menace of caste system confronted him. The complexities of the caste system put Gandhi in a bind and had him juggling with two movements, for self-rule and against rallying caste barriers. One of the interesting anecdotes described in Joseph Lelyveld’s book is that of struggle in Vaikom in present day Kerala. Lower caste were not only barred from entry into the temple but even from the roads leading to the temple; Gandhi did not allow the conflict turn into a national movement but went himself to negotiate with the priest who received him not in the temple because even Gandhi was of lower caste than priest. Gandhi failed to evince any concession from the Brahmin priest. And almost one century later, one can still read news stories about punishment meted to low caste entering temples or drawing water from the wells reserved for high caste. It would be shear ignorance to under-estimate Gandhi’s struggle with India. And Joseph Lelyveld has brought those out in a near flawless manner. When Congress party was at the cusp of attaining power and its leaders were already feeling heady with imminent power, Gandhi walked bare-feet in Noakhali area of present day Bangladesh; the fact that he was mostly shunned by the local population did not deter him. And when India became free on August 15, 1947, Gandhi stayed in Calcutta at the plea of Muslim League to prevent riots, which, nevertheless, did erupt. Those riots stopped only when he went to fast unto death. Joseph Lelyveld has described events around Gandhi as happened; unlike Gandhi’s autobiography which he wrote after a considerable time-gap and with benefit of hindsight. Gandhi the visionary was also a thorough politician and a tactician, who even in that age controlled his media image.

Gandhi himself and others do think he failed in his goals; he couldn’t prevent partition of the country on the basis of religion and caste system thrives despite him. Another aspect where he miserably failed to change his countrymen is matter of hygiene. Gandhi attended Congress convention in Calcutta in 1901 and was appalled to see the sanitation and much later it was same when he went to a Kumbh festival. In all probability, his reaction would be same, should he happen to visit even national capital beyond Lutyen’s Delhi in 2011. And the question was he homosexual; no he was not. And Joseph Lelyveld has no where said he was. And even if he were a homosexual, that wouldn’t make him less of a Mahatma. The question arose from his close relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish German and two became soul mates. More than any word a photograph of Gandhi and Kallenbach in the book taken in 1937 when they met after a gap of more than two decade bears a testimony to their friendship. At the same time it is true that Gandhi’s notions about sex were convoluted, an influence of Theosophical society or missionaries. He strived for a pure life that included physiological control; but an erection at the age of seventy and occasional nocturnal ejaculation would lead him to depression and he would enter into further bizarre experiments. But his idea of abstinence and importance of preservation of semen was more due to the general prevalent ignorance about human physiology in those times than any obnoxiousness. Then Gandhi did not live in an era of internet.
-Rajiv Kumar