Reviewing a book by a successful big name publisher can be a risky business; especially if the reviewer has literary ambitions. The situation is further complicated if she insists on being honest in her reviews. In a society that sticks by the ‘you scratch my back; I scratch yours’ rule an honest review could be fatal. Well, OK, it might not mean a knife in your back in some dark alley, or even lost book deals but yeah, it could mean being invited to fewer parties. And that, as everyone knows, can be heartbreaking. This reviewer usually sidesteps such assignments. She immediately falls ill; disappears to trek in the Himalayas, or stages her own kidnapping. None of those options were available to her when the editor thrust Pramod Kapoor’s Gandhi; An Illustrated Biography at her with a terse ‘Do it’. Oh no, it’s another book on the Mahatma, the man who, until recently, was pilloried by right wingers (one of whom shot him dead on January 30, 1948, exactly 68 years ago), continues to be flayed by Ambedkarites, and has been transformed by Bollywood into a charmingly toothless patriarch, whose image represents every positive yearning in contemporary India.
Whole libraries have been filled with books about the man; not to mention those rows upon rows stuffed with his own writing on everything from diet, sex, caste, hygiene, religion… in short, everything that continues to preoccupy the contemporary Indian. In the last few months alone you have pored over an excellent book of photographs by Kanu Gandhi, flipped through The South African Gandhi: The Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, apart from engaging in arguments online and ‘In Real Life’ about the man. Perhaps it is MK Gandhi’s obsession with essentials that continues to make him a fascinating personality, one who still intrigues us and Pramod Kapoor, founder and publisher of Roli Books, too. But what fresh insight could be gleaned from yet another book on the Mahatma, you wonder. In his introductory chapter aptly titled: My Experiment With Gandhi, Kapoor himself refers to the enormous effort the project entailed:
Gandhi called his life an open book and wrote and spoke about his life with complete honesty. I did not live in that era, but have read books and articles that show no one was more critical about his own actions than he was. Many of his actions were questionable… but it made him a unique human being…. In publishing this illustrated book, I was driven by a passion and fascination… I plunged into the task of reading and researching the millions of words that have been written about Gandhi the man, the crusader, the husband, father, leader and politician…
At the outset, this biography seemed over-ambitious, doomed to revisit familiar material. Surprisingly, Kapoor’s book, that touches on the personal and the political without focusing on what’s still taboo for many Indians, at least, (Joseph Lelyveld’s biography hinted at the nature of Gandhi’s close friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, who gifted him the land for Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg) succeeds in infusing freshness in a tale oft told. He does this by bringing alive Gandhi’s interactions with historical figures like Subhas Chandra Bose, with whom he had a fraught relationship and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. And here are Jinnah (Asked after the first meeting what he had got from Jinnah, Gandhi replied: ‘Only flowers’), and Annie Besant, who interrupted a speech where Gandhi proclaimed ‘I myself am an anarchist but of another type.’ But the best part of the book is the section on Gandhi and his eldest child Harilal. It’s prefaced with the full text of a letter from the son to the father that’s full of pain and honest in its declaration of his conflicted feelings: ‘But, you have given us no capital. That is my quarrel with you… Therefore, people mock us: “Go away, you free-loaders. You are eating out of your father’s earnings…” And again: “My entire letter stresses one point - ... You have never considered our rights and capabilities; you have never seen the person in us. Your life and actions are very harsh…” Sadly, the father of the nation was not a model father to his first born.
This is an absorbing book that presents a rounded picture of a complicated man. Publishers are rarely interesting writers. Pramod Kapoor has dodged that jinx.