Mahatma Gandhi's life invites scrutiny. His writing facilitates it. Innocent unconcern about likely distortions makes his letters and speeches peculiarly charming. It also makes tendentious mutilations of the story of his life particularly easy.
I have not read Joseph Lelyveld's book. And so I ought not to — and will not — comment on it. But the media excitement in India, we should realise, has not been generated by a book but by a review of the book. Lelyveld has, in a riposte, said the review does not quote him right.
Should we get shocked, one way or the other, by what a review says a book says when the author of the book maintains he doesn't? We should not.
But there is something else fit for our contemplation in this event. Gandhi has had so huge an impact on human thought (though nowhere near as huge on human action) that those uncomfortable with his 'way', have sought to counter his impact by strenuous attempts to locate flaws in his personality.
His 'fads' and his fetishes, his frankly unorthodox and — to all 'normal' sensibilities — his bizarre experiments in brahmacharya, his 'inner voice' and outer appearance, have all been found handy by demolition squads. He has, of course, collaborated in the proceedings most generously by his self-excoriating candour and by his lavish use of phrases and gestures of trust in fellow-beings.
Despite this, Gandhiphile thinking and writing continues to grow and continues to dwarf the Gandhiphobic. This is not just because of what Tara Ali Baig once described as "Gandhi's shining veracity" but because the shape of human experience from Hiroshima to Fukushima, from global terror to global warming, from Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin to Pol-Pot, Idi Amin and Mubarak points to its wisdom.
The Gandhi-Kallenbach story, as given in the review, should help us place tendentious newspaper reviews where they belong, namely, the green bin for bio-degradables. It should also lead us to three things:
One, to a study of the remarkable career of that German architect of Jewish descent, Hermann Kallenbach, whom Gandhi helped transform from a high-living urbanite in Johannesburg to a 'New Age' comrade in ecologically intelligent living but with whom Gandhi differed seriously, in later years, on the question of Palestine.
Two, to a self-examination by ourselves (and the media) on the jumpiness over intellectual non-events and non-sequiturs.
Three, it should alert us to the folly of banning books not because we respect the subject of their scrutiny but because it pays to appear as its protector. Gandhi, least interested in self-protection, is best protected by the strength of his own words and the wordlessness of his own strength.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi has edited Gandhi Is Gone. Who Will Guide Us Now? He is also a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.