Ramachandra Guha (2018). Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi, pp. 1129
This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who in many ways defined the twentieth century. Gandhi had a long, eventful, and public life in three continents, the most prominent of which was spent at the helm of the mass struggle for freedom in the largest empire of the colonial world in British India. Furthermore, Gandhi shared in a lucid and direct manner, the arguments and counter-arguments that governed his political life, and the experiments that shaped his private world, through his published works that run into 95 collected volumes and personal papers that span many decades.
What is new for a biographer of such a prominent personality on which many scholars have spent a lifetime? In the second (and last) part of this extended biography, Ramachandra Guha does the astounding feat of throwing new light into a well-rehearsed story with the academic authority that comes from sustained scholarship and undying interest in the subject. Perusing sixty archival sources including the collected works, letters, contemporary newspaper articles and published secondary resources, Guha is also the first biographer to use materials from the recently released personal papers of Mahatma Gandhi that was entrusted with his last secretary Pyarelal. Divided into five parts, the second volume of this biography begins in 1915 when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, until his death in 1948.
From Empire Loyalist to Satyagrahi
The story begins with Gandhi’s return to India, fresh from his struggle on behalf of Indians in South Africa, as a loyalist of the British Empire and a decorated volunteer during the Anglo-Boer war and the Zulu rebellion. In the next three decades, the political experiments of Gandhi take its course through three experiments in Satyagraha (or truth-force), non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience through the Salt March and Quit India proclamation. Throughout the narration of this political struggle, three characteristics stand out in this biography.
Guha devotes considerable space to bring out the Gandhi’s thought process behind his various propositions. One example Gandhi’s insistence on spinning cloth that combines the ideals of personal uplift, social reform, economic self-sufficiency and national pride. Similarly, the other pre-occupations such as learning languages and reading about religions have been given fair treatment. Just as freedom and self-sufficiency went hand in hand for Gandhi, personal relationships and first-hand knowledge was a road map for inter-community cooperation. Understanding the Gandhian rationale helps the reader to appreciate the protagonist’s intense and (often mind boggling) obsession with seemingly disparate activities in the midst of intense political struggle for freedom.
The second feature is that Guha delicately brings out a nuanced evaluation of Gandhi’s outlook. For example, on the women’s question, whilst Gandhi supported education, abolition of the purdah (veil) and gendered division of labor, he also acted like a patriarch who assumed that woman had a prominent role in childbearing. Such seemingly contradictory viewpoints lead to the biographer’s remark that Gandhi was progressive by the standards of his time but conservative by ours. Similarly, Gandhi’s obsession with diet and celibacy, and his changing assumptions are patiently and painstakingly brought out.
The third feature is that Guha brings out the lesser known personalities in Gandhi’s life and acknowledges the role they played in making Gandhi who he was. An excellent illustration is the generous and tender portrayal of his secretary Mahadev Desai, his unceasing commitment to Mahatma’s life and the poignancy of his death.
Gandhi for Our Times
The book concludes with an epilogue that brings out debates after Gandhi’s passing. What has Gandhi to show for himself in today’s world? Guha enumerates four points. First, Gandhi had that rare quality of being monastically steadfast in his principled stands whilst maintaining an open mind to new ideas and arguments. He permitted himself to change, even contradict himself as he formed and reformed his opinions. It is this quality that leads to what is perceived as ‘inconsistency’ in Gandhi’s thoughts. For example, his take on race, caste and women changed significantly in the course of his lifetime. It is only by thinking through him and walking with him all the way, that we understand the validity of his suppositions.
Second, Gandhi had a heightened sense of self awareness that opened himself to criticism from various quarters. It stands to his merit that rather than withdrawing, he thoroughly enjoyed and engaged in a good fight. Third, Gandhi did not have a private life, in the sense the modern reader understands it. His experiments, inferences and the journey of self-discovery was widely shared with the world, exposing the best and the deeply controversial in him. Finally, Gandhi had immense physical and mental strength to perform these experiments on himself, including some of his greatest fasts and long marches in his act of Satyagraha. Gandhi fasted every alternate year in the last thirty-five years including two 21-day fasts. These four remarkable characteristics, qualify, illuminate and sometimes confound him in the eyes of all who read him today.
Whatever I look for in the best of books- novelty in perspective, persuasion in argument, the beauty of the literary- are abundantly present in this book. Seldom does a larger-than-life historical figure meets his match in the biographer, the way Gandhi meets Guha. Clearly, this is the book of the year for me!