A candid recreation of one of the most influential lives of recent times, Mohandas finally answers questions long asked about the timid youth from India's west coast who became a century's conscience and led his nation to liberty: What was Gandhi like is his daily life and in his closest relationships? In his face-offs with an Empire, with his own bitterly divided people, with his adversaries, his family and-his greatest confrontation-with himself?
Answering these and other questions, and releasing the true Gandhi from his shroud of fame and myth, Mohandas, authored by a practised biographer who is also Gandhi's grandson's does more than tell a story.
With its weep, its swings between glory and tragedy, the profusion and richness of its characters-and the stamina and resilience of the chief among them-Mohandas tells the great history of an Asian nation's interaction with a European empire.
But this historical account addresses today's issues as well. After the violence the world has witnessed in recent times-in Bombay and in Gujarat, in New York and Washington, the American attacks that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq and the horrors of the conflict involving Lebanon and Israel-the world awaits the reconciliation between Muslims and non-Muslims which constituted one of the compelling passions of Gandhi's life.
A former parliamentarian in India, Rajmohan Gandhi currently teaches in the USA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Apart from several biographies, his works include Understanding the Muslim Mind and Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History, both published by Penguin India.
Front cover photograph by D. G. Tendulkar Back cover photograph by Kanu Gandhi Author photograph by Dale Wain Cover design by Chandan Crasta.
Started as an exercise to delineate the 'true' Gandhi, this project turned naturally and swiftly into a retelling of a modern-day epic involving an unusual hero, a complex people, and a powerful empire.
With its sweep, its oscillations between glory and tragedy, the profusion of its characters, the richness (in infirmity and strength) of its (several) principal characters, and the valiant persistence of the chief among them, the story I have sought to relate is without doubt a classic. I only hope my retelling does not hopelessly undersell it.
In some ways it is an unbelievable story. Einstein thought that 'generations to come will scarce believe' that Gandhi actually did what he did. Hence the reminder in the subtitle that this is a true story.
But it is also an attempt to identify the 'true' Gandhi-to convey the truth about him. Though a popular metaphor, sixty years after his death, for innocence, ingenuity or courage, he is not clearly known as a person.
The Good Boatman, an earlier study I did of Gandhi (also published by Viking/Penguin), attempted to answer some important questions, including why the subcontinent saw so much violence despite Gandhi's nonviolence, and why Partition occurred despite his opposition. But it was not a biography. This one is.
The metaphor has shrouded the man. A courageous, selfless, and nonviolent foe of oppression anywhere may be dubbed a Gandhi, even in places far from India, while a tormentor of the innocent may be called Gandhi's new assailant, as happened in India during carnages in 1984, 1992 and 2002.
But what was Gandhi like as a human being? Despite his fame, or perhaps because of it, Mohandas Gandhi the individual is not sufficiently felt, or seen, or understood.
In India we think we know him. No face is more familiar. He looks at us from currency notes, postage stamps and billboards. We feel we can sketch the spectacles, the baled head, the loincloth, the pocket-watch. But familiarity is not knowledge.
We think we also know what he stood for. Yet the obvious and predictable Gandhi may be very misleading, and the beliefs of he real man may have been quite different from what we think.
Who was he, this timid lad who became a century's conscience and led India to liberty? This discoverer of satyagraha, the one wanting to remove every tear from every eye, this pioneer of religious pluralism and dissenter from modernity, what was he like in his daily life, in his lose relationship?.
What was he like in his confrontations, his face-offs with an Empire, with his own bitterly divided people, with his adversaries-and, perhaps his greatest confrontation, with himself?
Was he a politician or a saint? If both, how did these two Gandhis combine, and in what proportions? Or was he, as critics have alleged, someone who broke a pledge that he would rather die than accept Partition? Was he not an unfeeling husband and father? A man who did strange things in the name of chastity? Or emasculated India in the name of nonviolence? Or patronized Dalits without empowering them?
This study is a bid to free Gandhi the person from his image or images, and to present his life fully and honestly.
Many have presented their versions of Gandhi, often powerfully. Assisted by his sister Sushila Nayar, Gandhi's faithful secretary Pyarelal provided a remarkable multi-volume biography that began with Gandhi's last phase, turned to his Childhood and boyhood, and then covered the 'middle' decades. Earlier, D. G. Tendulkar had produced his eight-volume biography. B. R. Nanda, Louis Fischer and Geoffrey Ashe have each given us a memorable and popular volume and they are not the only ones to have done so.
Erik Erikson's Gandhi's Truth analyzed his subject's tension-filled psychology and his oft-peculiar practices, and Martin Green has presented Gandhi as a New Age "revolutionary. In 1909 Joseph Doke wrote the first Gandhi biography, in the 1920s Gandhi wrote his own account in My Experiments with Truth, dozens of other biographies followed, and more will be written.
In the 1990s, Yogesh Chadha wrote a widely welcomed life of Gandhi. Recently, Narayan Desai, the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's secretary from 1917, has published a significant four-volume Gandhi biography in Gujarati. An English translation is to follow. The numerous diaries into which Mahadev Desai entered many an enlightening detail were published earlier.
Yet there seemed a need for the chronological, complete and candid portrayal attempted here. Studies written shortly after his assassination naturally stressed Gandhi's final decade and some aspects of his personality, inevitably excluding other areas. Moreover, the early biographers produced their works without access to the vast amount of illuminating material now available to scholars.
Perhaps time was needed before the whole of his life could be looked at as one piece, and a touchable, seeable, comprehensible Gandhi brought out.
It was a tall order. I went for it in fear and trembling, praying that I might do some justice to the man and also to truth. God only knows how far I have succeeded or failed.
This is the story of someone who was neither simple to understand, nor easy to live with, nor a stranger to error or to defeat, but who continues to inspire many and interest many more. It seeks to unravel Gandhi's complexity, looks at his quirks, failures and weaknesses, and looks too for the secret behind the power of a frail man who renounced wealth, ease and rank.
This metaphor for innocence was an exceedingly shrewd tactician and strategist. How he made his decisions, and recruited allies, are exercises portrayed here, as also his moves regarding India's future leadership.
In the epic I seek to retell, several stories intertwine with the story of Gandhi's life. The stories of India's freedom movement and the 1947 Partition and violence. The story of caste and untouchability. The story of Hindu-Muslim relations and of India's princely states. The origins of modern Indian democracy. The story of modern Hinduism. Aspects of all these stories will be found in the pages that follow.
Plus the story of a youth, a man, and an old man hungry to change history.
For full disclosure, let me state that I am a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, one of the fifteen grandchildren born to his four children, who were all sons. Nine grandchildren (four granddaughters and five grandsons) are living as of date, as well as a large number of great-grandchildren and the offspring, plus many Gandhis descending from his siblings and cousins. My father, Devadas, was Gandhi's youngest son. I was twelve-and-a-half, a schoolboy in New Delhi, when the Mahatma was killed.
But I am also, I hope, a scholar omitted to facts and their discovery.
The Gandhi portrayed in these pages emerges from a mass of material: letters, memoirs, diary jottings, records of conversations, talks, interviews, articles, books. A series of talented aides recorded his remarks and moods. Newspapers recorded his public utterances. His own journals carried Gandhi's articles. He wrote an autobiography himself as well as a history of his South African satyagrahas. Foes, critics and psychoanalysts have exposed to view aspects of Gandhi missed by admirers. Several companions, and critical allies, have offered glimpses and interpretations.
An important item from family archives has been used here for the first time (in Chapter Seven). This study benefits also from material recently brought before the public by Nilam Parikh and Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, granddaughters, respectively, of Harilal Gandhi and Manilal Gandhi, the Mahatma's first and second sons.
A biographer hoping to construct the 'real' Gandhi suffers not from a paucity of material but from its abundance. His task is to weight and select, to decide what is significant, and discern true and perhaps hidden meanings.
And a Gandhi biographer does not start from scratch. He owes large debts to (among others) numerous diarists, memoirists, other biographers, libraries and librarians, archives and archivists, and to the compiler of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.
A acknowledge these debts as well as what I owe to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which allowed me to write this biography while discharging my responsibilities as a visiting professor and as the academic director of one of its living and learning communities. I thank the Navajivan Trust for permission to quote from Gandhi's writings and utterances. And I thank Prita Maitra, my painstaking and uncomplaining editor at Viking/Penguin.
This book has been written over a thirty-month period, but it has been though about, and its questions wrestled with, for much longer. May it inform and interest the reader and, God willing, speak to today's questions.
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