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Joseph Lelyveld’s “Great Soul” or How to Damn with Faint Praise: Mridu Rai

April 13, 2011

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld; Alfred A. Knopf, 425 pp., $28.95

Guest post by MRIDU RAI

Joseph Lelyveld’s book was banned in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s native state of Gujarat a day after its publication in the United States. On 30 March 2011, the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party that rules the state, led by its chief minister Narendra Modi, charged Lelyveld with committing “the most reprehensible act by hurting the sentiments of millions of people and demanded that he tender a public apology”. The provocation for this proscription was the mention in some reviews that Lelyveld had suggested Gandhi was bisexual and racist. At the very least, it is surprising that the first public outcry in India against the review — the book has not yet been released in India — should come from the Hindu Right, the political constituency of Nathuram Godse who assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948. This must join the many ironies Lelyveld’s book brings out, not least that of latter-day politicians in India (and South Africa) claiming to be his heirs and yet honouring his teaching, if at all, only in their most diluted and least recognizable versions. As Lelyveld writes in his author’s notes, ‘‘[I]t was hard to see what remained of him beyond his nimbus”.

Great Soul cannot be described as a paean to Gandhi. It is a book that spans the over half-a-century-long political career of a man that many across the globe and over time have adulated, followed, been inspired by, but also questioned, opposed and felt betrayed by. Joseph Lelyveld is not the first to dissect the myth that surrounds Gandhi nor will he in all probability be the last. But he brings his own scrutiny to bear on Gandhi in a readable narrative in which his own surprise and bemusement at Gandhi’s inconsistencies, his political and social narrowness, and his frequently callous disregard of those who do not command his immediate political or personal interest are manifest. Many aspects of Gandhi’s life and ideas emerge here in damning light but Lelyveld diligently illuminates the context underlying them. This may be why he deals more gently, or perhaps more circumspectly, with some of Gandhi’s striking ideological volte-faces, political retreats, social compromises and personal idiosyncrasies than many of his contemporaries, biographers and certainly his detractors have done.

The second half of Lelyveld’s title is the clue to the book. It is an attempt to understand much more than Gandhi’s careers either in South Africa or in India; it uncovers the bigger story, to use a journalist’s term, of a man’s efforts to impress the values of a Mahatma derived from his experiences in both places upon an India that does not always welcome them. We are told in great detail about his twenty-one years in South Africa (1893-1914). We learn of his unifying the colony’s Hindus and Muslims, his challenging on their behalf some of the racist laws of a white-ruled government, his tactical but unpopular retreats to retain firm control of his followers. He frequently angers his comrades by his unilateral decisions to compromise with the authorities when his narrowly conceived goals are achieved, leaving the many whom he has rallied and fired into action in the lurch. Those who will read the book to the end might recognize here much of Gandhi’s disconcerting conduct in India, too. We must take Gandhi’s years in South Africa either as the years of practice to perfect his less popular gambits in India or as evidence of one individual’s obdurate refusal to learn from experience.

Reading about the South Africa years, we also anguish over Gandhi’s reluctance to take up arms on behalf of the poorest and most oppressed of his fellow subjects — the mostly lower-caste South Indian indentured laborers and the majority of Africans whose land it is. It is only after he witnesses the brutal wounds inflicted on Zulu bodies by the white government’s merciless suppression of the Bhambhatha rebellion of 1906 that Gandhi displays “horror” and “soul-searching over his unpopular decision to the side with the whites”.  Without judgment on the meagerness of his sympathy, Lelyveld reproduces Gandhi’s account of this being the ‘major turning point of his life spiritually’ when his earlier vow of celibacy becomes linked as the prerequisite for “a life of service and voluntary poverty”. And it was only in 1913, the year before his departure for India, that Gandhi was finally stirred to lead a satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) campaign in the indentured laborers’ cause to abolish a 3-pound head tax they were required to pay at the end of their contract in order to either remain in the colony or face expulsion. Since Gandhi was incarcerated early in the campaign, it was the laborers in the mines and sugar plantations that went on strike to enact his satyagraha and so also bore the brunt of the reprisals for it. The wide condemnation of the violence unleashed on the striking labourers forced the white government to release Gandhi and make a settlement with him that only very partially met the demands made on behalf of the better-off Indians, cancelled the head tax on former indentured labourers but gained nothing for those still under contract. Just as his dismay over the violence upon the rebellious Zulus had produced no long-lasting sympathy for them, his appraisal of the indentured laborers’ resistance drew from him only his patronizing astonishment at their “unexpected powers of endurance and suffering”.

This is a troubling account of Gandhi’s time in South Africa. Unpalatable as they may be, however, these ingredients produced not only a mass leader but also a social reformer. South Africa is the nursery for Gandhi’s widely admired ideals of social justice, his recognition of the perfect equality of all men, a vision of a freedom grounded in self-reliance—summed up pithily in his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj as the injunction to “cease to play the ruled” — and a devotion to public hygiene that would drive him and his followers to perform the most reviled yet individually humbling task of cleaning up faeces.

Gandhi carries these principles and experiences to India, where his career until his murder mirrors curiously his earlier one in South Africa. At least this is the effect produced by his own frequent association of his actions in one place with those in the other. While in India he frequently reminisces about his time in South Africa to search for guidance or fortitude in difficult times, or to put on record a series of self-rationalisations of his several social compromises and political retreats. His surprising inability to forge a compact in India with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the educated “untouchable” leader, despite their shared commitment to eradicating “untouchability”, parallels his unfathomable reluctance to make an ally in South Africa of John Dube, a Zulu aristocrat and a “near neighbour”, despite Gandhi’s avowed if belated recognition of the Zulus’ unjust subjugation. When Dube modeled his Natal Native Congress in 1900 on Gandhi’s Natal Indian Congress and Ambedkar led Gandhi-inspired satyagraha campaigns for untouchables’ access to public water supplies, they had laid the groundwork for coalitions that might have changed the course of history for two extremely marginalized peoples. Gandhi missed both opportunities by refusing to cultivate either. Lelyveld scrupulously refrains from apportioning either blame or praise.

This characterizes also his treatment of Gandhi’s well-known and controversial sexual experiments that involved lying naked next to women to check the steadfastness of his oath of celibacy. However, there are times when Lelyveld’s neutrality is irksome. Even readers applauding his refusal to pass moralising judgment might wish for more outright condemnation of some of Gandhi’s doings. This is especially true of those involving Manu, the seventeen-year-old grandniece, whom the “Mahatma” summoned to his mattress in 1946 and whose treatment can only be called sexual and emotional abuse. Perhaps Gandhi’s behavior ought be more overtly described as perverse when he forces a frightened Manu to walk alone through thick jungle in a recently riot-torn district in Bengal merely to retrieve a pumice stone she had accidentally left behind. And perhaps Jawaharlal Nehru ought to be unequivocally castigated for witnessing Gandhi’s use of Manu and yet “silently stepp[ing] away”. Rather than denounce, Lelyveld lays out facts and leaves readers to summon up their own interpretations and reactions to them.

In which case, perhaps Lelyveld cannot be surprised that some readers infer from his faithful presentation of the fragmentary evidence available of Gandhi’s correspondence with his companion, the architect Hermann Kallenbach, a homosexual or bisexual relation. Or that they deduce Gandhi was racist from his recounting of Gandhi’s frequent refusal to intervene on behalf of Africans against the injustices and oppressions of South Africa’s white leadership; his references to Gandhi’s use of the derogatory term “Kaffir” to describe them; and from his citing the Indian leader’s conclusion in 1908 that “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals”. Of course, it is true that Lelyveld himself never describes Gandhi as homosexual, bisexual or racist in his book. While there is no defending the Gujarat government’s decision to ban the book, the intense indignation of Lelyveld’s reaction is about as justified as Salman Rushdie’s surprise that some chapters of his Satanic Verses might have offended Muslims.

In the end, it is not clear what Joseph Lelyveld’s verdict is on Mahatma Gandhi. In this he remains true to the fact that he never set out to provide one. We must satisfy ourselves with the plentiful story he tells about Gandhi through the painstaking record of his strivings, victories, as well as discrepancies, self-confessed flaws and failures, but we must also heed his important caveat that “to say Gandhi wasn’t absolutely consistent isn’t to convict him of hypocrisy; it’s to acknowledge that he was a political leader preoccupied with the task of building a nation, or sometimes just holding it together”. Viewing it dispassionately, we might see the writing of this book as an act of salvation for what person’s legacy can ever fully bear the burden of the high honorific of a Great Soul without coming up short?

(Mridu Rai teaches South Asian History at Trinity College, Dublin, and is the author of Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rajan Krishnan permalink
    April 13, 2011 10:29 AM

    I don’t understand this: “While there is no defending the Gujarat government’s decision to ban the book, the intense indignation of Lelyveld’s reaction is about as justified as Salman Rushdie’s surprise that some chapters of his Satanic Verses might have offended Muslims.” What should be the ideal reaction of the author? Empathizing with those who may be “hurt” by the book? Apologies about having to write unpleasant things? What exactly is offensive in this book? I do not want to say anything about the much argued and much lamented instance of Rushdie once again. I believe the very invocation of Rushdie in this context is problematic. It lacks the critical foresight that is needed to deal with such potentially dangerous issues.

  2. Mridu Rai permalink
    April 14, 2011 3:39 AM

    Dear Mr. Krishnan,
    Thank you for your careful reading of my review. No, of course, I do not believe an author is responsible for or should be held accountable for the reception of her/his book. My comment had to do with the high dudgeon with which Mr. Lelyveld first reacted to the reading by some of the evidence he presents on Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach as also on Gandhi’s limited sympathy with the cause of Africans in South Africa. In fact I was surprised he was surprised. My point is that I don’t see why he was so outraged that that was how many readers would read his evidence (the reference to Rushdie was in that context). I like to think that I am a serious reader of serious books, so not particularly prone to look for sensationalism where none exists. However, even without going to the idiotic extent of Andrew Roberts’s sensationalizing in the WSJ, reading the book, I was inclined to the conclusion that the relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach may have been homosexual, homoerotic or something of the sort. I was also inclined to the conclusion that Gandhi’s attitude towards Africans in South Africa does veer on being racist. That, to my mind, is the inference implied by the evidence Mr. Lelyveld presents. Having said this, on the first I wasn’t particularly riveted, not only because it’s not the most important part of the book–it’s just the presentation of another facet of Gandhi’s life which to me, personally, is only mildly interesting compared to other facets–but also because if Gandhi were homosexual it wouldn’t be a cause for emotional upheaval, if I may it in those sedating terms. On the second, I think I was more troubled with what I still see as evidence of a distinct buying on Gandhi’s part into a White reading of the inferiority of darker “races”. I was troubled not by Lelyveld’s presenting evidence of it, mind you, but by Gandhi’s thinking on this issue. But with Gandhi, it seems one’s always finding new reasons to applaud as well as to deprecate.
    I hope this clarifies my thinking on the remark you cite above.
    Best wishes,
    Mridu Rai

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