Gandhi: Naked Ambitions
quercus Rs 699 pp 323
There is a wry cynicism with which anybody would approach a new biography of Mahatma Gandhi. So much has been written about the man, by contemporaries and historians alike, so much of his life has been in the public domain and open to excruciating scrutiny, that the question is inevitable: is there anything left to say?
To Jad Adams’ credit, he does a reasonable job. An engaging writer, with the distance of time, he also chooses — as others have — to critically appraise some of Gandhi’s political decisions and imperatives against the touchstone of time. In particular, his argument that the resignation of the Congress provincial governments in 1939 and the Quit India Movement in 1942 — in the midst of Britain’s defining war with the Axis Powers — “cost the nationalists dear in terms of the latitude the British were prepared to extend” touches upon a subject India is still not comfortable discussing.
No less provocative is Adams’ conclusion that, “[Gandhi] could conceive of personal animosity, but genocidal destruction was beyond his understanding. Confronted with massive evil — the Armenian massacres, the Japanese massacres, the Nazi Holocaust — his philosophy faltered. It offered endless suffering but no salvation. Gandhi was a great nationalist, but his adversary Churchill was a better role model for the challenges the world’s nations faced in the 1930s.”
Indeed, Adams argues Gandhi’s approach would work “where there was a common principle and an expectation of civil obedience; where there was a legal framework in which courts showed at least a pretence to objectivity; where there was a standard of common decency to which he could appeal; where there was a free press to publicise injustice and a population concerned about it… There was no comparison to life under a totalitarian state.” Here, Gandhi’s equivalence of British governance in India and conditions after a possible Japanese conquest does surprise Adams, as it would many, in its sheer naivety.
Adams sees Gandhi not so much as a modern politician but as a New Age guru before his time, a predecessor of Mahesh Yogi or Sathya Sai Baba: “Gandhi’s ashram may have been the first at which a successful attempt was made by Indians to package Indian beliefs in an internationally attractive form.” To the author his subject anticipated a series of postmodernist causes (or fads): pacifism, smoking bans, anti-alcoholism, organic food, ecologically-sustainable living or, at the level of the individual, absolute freedom and equality. He sees Gandhi as an icon for Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, as well as for gay activists seeking to publicly ridicule an absurd law, as Gandhi did with the salt tax.
To more pragmatic practitioners of politics or, in a sense, of life, Gandhi charmed and inspired, but also exasperated. Adam quotes the Oxford historian Edward Thompson as remarking after meeting the Mahatma: “Not since Socrates has the world seen his equal for absolute self-control and composure.” Thompson added, however, that he “was quite able to understand why the Athenians had made Socrates drink hemlock.”
Where Adams falters is in his treatment of Gandhi’s celibacy-related experiments and sexual pronouncements. As a subject, this can be enthralling. Yet, it required a separate chapter or an essay. As an interpolation in an otherwise chronological telling of the man’s life, it only made a smooth narrative jerky.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator