The Multifarious Mahatma
Mahatma Gandhi has always been a fascinating subject for biographers. Lelyveld’s work is not a conventional life story as it begins in South Africa and not in Gandhi’s childhood years in Porbandar. Gandhi was all of 23 when he took his place as a law clerk and translator in South Africa.
The writer holds that South Africa was the true beginning of the life of the one, of whom Albert Einstein was to say in that oft-repeated quote, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Lelyveld’s tenures as foreign correspondent for The New York Times in South Africa and India proved for him to be a favourable time to do ample research on the subject of Gandhi, which he has obviously put to good use in this exhaustive volume. The writer notes significantly, that after being ejected from a first-class compartment at Pietermaritzburg station on the objection of a white fellow traveller, Gandhi raised a good deal of commotion on the issue resulting in his boarding the same train from the same station, under the protection of the station-master occupying a first-class birth. It is details like these which add spice to Lelyveld`s work.
The description of Hermann Kallenbach, who was Gandhi’s closest companion in those years, deserves special mention—for the hue and cry it caused in India—resulting in the Gujarat Government banning the biography. Many have criticised the ban as nothing seems very apparent to suggest a bisexual relationship between Gandhi and the East Prussian architect, body-builder. The term of addressing each other as “Upper-House” (Gandhi) and “Lower House” (Kallenbach) were just friendly terms. Lelyveld notes, “In an age when the concept of Platonic love gains little credence, selectively of the relationship and quotations from letters can easily be arranged to suggest a conclusion.”
After giving a broad canvass to his struggles in South Africa, one finds in the pages that follow the writer has dealt with the rest of Gandhi’s life in a manner which does not disappoint. From the cause of the exploited indigo peasants in Bihar, to the drought-stricken Kheda farmers’ suffering, no cause was too trivial for the great soul. His heroic struggle in Calcutta and Noakhali is well recorded. As also his experiments in celibacy, where the 17-year-old daughter of his nephew, Manu, gave him oil massage and shared the same bed, with as little clothing as possible—as he felt that his example of controlling the animal arousal would have an effect on reducing the violent flames engulfing the country at the time. Unable to fathom the meaning of this message some shocked followers left him.
Lelyveld visits Srirampur, the village where Gandhi spent time while in Noakhali. He writes of his visit, “Voices become hushed. His name evokes a formal reverence, even among those who have never known the details of his time here … and the killings are remembered as a long-ago typhoon, another kind of disaster.”
The last phase, and the assassin’s bullets on January 30, 1948, brings down the curtain. On the penultimate evening of his life Gandhi was working on a memorandum for the dissolution of the Congress, which had “outlived its utility” and thus stating that it be converted into a body called the “Lok Sevak Sangh”. This document was unfortunately never discussed at any forum of the Congress. Would the political history of India have been different, had it been implemented? In Joseph Lelyveld, Barrister MK Gandhi has found a worthy Boswell.
By Arvindar Singh