Whatever else that may be said in criticism of Gandhi, everyone is agreed that he never told a lie, however embarrassing the truth was. He equated truth with God. While the existence of God can be questioned, when translated into truth, it becomes a part of human behaviour which is tested for veracity day after day till the very end. That is why millions of people around the world who pay no attention to Gandhi’s commitment to vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and from sex except to produce offspring believe Gandhi was a Mahatma, a great soul, who had a new message for humanity and are proud to call themselves Gandhi-Bhaktas. I count myself as one of them. I eat all kinds of meat, including beef and pork, relish good wine and Scotch, think that sex is the most enjoyable experience in life, and often tell petty lies to avoid embarrassment and yet describe myself as a Gandhi-ite.
I confess I had no desire to read Jad Adams’s Gandhi: Naked Ambition. I have read enough of Gandhi written by himself and his innumerable biographers. He has become a bore. But I was provoked by the subtitle. I went on to read the introduction. It pointed out a couple of contradictions between what Gandhi said and actually did. They were trivia of no consequence but enough to raise my hackles. Then I could not put the book down till I came to the last page. Adams is a modern historian as well as a media person. He knows how to hold his readers’ attention. So, amidst serious events, he puts in a lot of Gandhi’s eccentricities about diet, bowel movements, relations with women and experiments to control carnal desires. Consequently, reading this biography is both like taking a refresher course in the events of his life, from his birth to his assassination, interlaced with his experiments to control his sexual yearnings. Adams goes out of his way to repress nothing but ends up as a fervent admirer of Gandhi.
Born a Bania, Gandhi’s family’s Hinduism was strongly influenced by the Jain belief in ahimsa, non-violence, and sanctity of all life. At school he befriended a Muslim boy, Sheikh Mehtab, who convinced him that they could not get the better of the English until they became as physically strong. And the English were strong because they ate meat and most Indians did not. So young Gandhi tried meat. At first he threw up but persisted and tried a dozen times before he gave it up altogether. He was also persuaded to have sex and taken to a brothel. He failed to perform and the whore threw him out. He got married in 1883 to the 14-year-old Kasturba Kapadia, who was totally illiterate. She was not much of a companion, but provided him with all the sex he wanted. The most traumatic event of his early married life was when one night, while he was engaged in sex, his ailing father died in the next room. It convinced him that sex was sinful and only permissible if the couple wanted a child.
The next phase of his life were his three years in London at the Inner Temple to become a barrister. He spent most of his spare time promoting vegetarianism and as an active member of the Theosophical Society. He read extensively—Ruskin, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Kipling, as well as the sacred scriptures like the Gita, Torah, Zend Avesta, Bible and the Koran. He evolved a brand of Hinduism which had equal respect for all religions.
The most important events during his stay in South Africa were personal experiences of racial discrimination practiced by Dutch Boers and British settlers. While travelling by train, he was thrown out of the first-class compartment by a European at Pietermaritzburg railway station. He spent the night in the waiting room, shivering in the cold. It was probably on that memorable night that he evolved the formula of satyagraha to rouse the conscience of tyrants who were too powerful to be overcome by force. It turned out to be a potent weapon for the weak. He won the sympathy and admiration of most people, including several Europeans like Henry Polak and Hermann Kallenbach. He was his own pro. He wrote extensively in English and Gujarati: when his right hand had cramps, he wrote with his left hand. He addressed meetings of Indian settlers. Many of them, mostly Muslims, became his chelas. He set up communes where ashramites had to pray together, grow their own vegetables, eat together and clean their own chamber pots. When Kasturba refused to do so, he threw her out till she gave in to his wishes. He was tyrannical in imposing discipline.
All that he tried out in South Africa he tried to put into practice when he finally returned to India. His reputation as a saintly crank had preceded him. For guidance, he turned to Gokhale; for action, to himself. He visualised India as a conglomeration of self-reliant villages which grew their own food, spun and wove their own cloth. Hence the spinning charka became a must for everyone. He was against industrialisation and was an anachronism for the age, yet the entire nation began to look on him as its guru and guide.
Adams takes you through most of the important events of the Mahatma’s life: the march to Dandi to break the salt tax law (he only picked up a fistful of muddy saline water a few miles short of Dandi, but made a great fanfare to attract publicity) and his meetings with other leaders (M.A. Jinnah, the Nehrus, Sardar Patel, a succession of Viceroys and innumerable foreign visitors). An American preacher, J.H. Holmes, who met him in 1931, wrote: “He has a shaven head, thick lips, and a mouth that is minus many teeth. But his dark complexion is richly beautiful against the white background of his shawl, his eyes shine like candles in the night, and all over is the radiance of a smile like sunshine on a morning landscape.” Viceroy Lord Willingdon found him very slippery: “To have to deal with a man who is a mixture of a saint and a Bania is very trying indeed.” Lord Linlithgow described him as “the world’s most successful humbug”. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was no admirer of Gandhi’s foibles, wrote: “He was humble, but also clear-cut and hard as a diamond, pleasant and soft-spoken but inflexible and terribly earnest.”
Gandhi had many successes to his credit, but also two big failures. He was unable to win the confidence of the Muslims. He went out of his way to appease them, including a totally unwarranted support for the Khilafat movement. It evaporated when Mustafa Kemal Pasha of Turkey abolished the Caliphate. However, even this gratuitous gesture did not win Muslims’ hearts and the demand for a separate Muslim state gathered strength and won the battle. Gandhi was heart-broken. His second failure was his attempt to abolish caste discrimination among Hindus and give Dalits a fair deal. He did his best by living among them. His example was not followed by caste-conscious Hindus.
Many chapters could be written on Gandhi’s relations with women. They were drawn to him like proverbial moths to a flame. Among the notable were Saraladevi Choudhurani, a niece of Tagore’s who was married to a Punjabi. Unlike Kasturba, she was educated and articulate. He called her his “spiritual wife” and at one time toyed with the idea of having a polygamous relationship with her. There was Madeleine Slade (Miraben), daughter of a British admiral, who became his closest companion. There were also Sushila Nayar and his two grandnieces, Abha and Manu. In turns they massaged his limbs and his scalp. He had them sleep naked by his side, bathed naked with them, gave them enemas when needed. He did not have sex with any of them, but they came in his dreams and he had night emissions. He told everyone about his wet dreams and failure to conquer his libido. Nehru was nauseated by his confessions. His son Devdas protested that they brought shame on the family.
It is odd that, despite he himself and his biographers stripping him naked, he remains one of the most loved icons in world history. The chief reason for this is he never told a lie, equated truth with God and made it the guiding principle of his life.