The Indian freedom movement did not take place on a smooth plain. Its terrain was rough, full of ups and downs and twists and turns. Many of those who travelled in that terrain were of an uncommon calibre. Still, a great number of them stumbled and fell by the wayside. A few managed to survive and reach the destination. And Gandhi led them all. His is easily among the most extra-ordinary stories ever told and he easily the most widely known modern Indian anywhere in the world. I had been asked about him by ordinary people in countries as far away as Costa Rica. They were amazed, as Einstein rightly predicted, that such a man could really exist. Nearer home, there are a few who revile him and attribute to him diabolic qualities which, if he had been told that he had had them, would have induced a smile from him. Just a few days ago, I saw a poster carrying a huge picture of a Southern politician (with an inset of Modi) and rather triumphantly calling him the Godse of South India.
It did not elucidate which modern Gandhi he was zeroing on. Seventy years after his martyrdom, Gandhi is many things to many people. Still, there is a quintessential Gandhi, as seen by his adulating, friendly, critical and contemptuous contemporaries and as may be distilled from his life and writings. It is this Gandhi that Guha presents in his book in an easy and a graceful style. The book runs into over eleven hundred pages, but its flow would mesmerise even persons who hate huge tomes, like me. It is said of some masterpieces of painting that whoever is assessing them is being assessed in turn. This is true of Gandhi too. In my assessment, Guha will be counted among the great biographers of the world.
Guha’s is a narrative biography, chronologically told as far as practicable. Amazingly, for a book of its girth, it doesn’t digress much, hewing close to its subject.
In the first hundred pages, Gandhi searches for solutions to some of the unique problems of India. The Gandhi of the last few pages is still searching for solutions to almost the same problems. In the intervening years, he himself changed into a different person and transformed millions of Indians into better human beings. Many more remained unchanged, but that was not his fault. It is rarely given to one to depart from this world at the most glorious moment of one’s life—Gandhi died when he was the exemplar of an astonishing iridescence of love and compassion when the world around him was dissolving in a miasma of hate. Guha covers these heady years with aplomb. He also deals with the human Gandhi. He is unsparing in his criticism about Gandhi’s wooden-headedness in dealing with his children, especially his eldest son. He speaks about his infatuation with Tagore’s niece and, thankfully, is very brief on his infamous experiments on Brahmacharya.
Guha’s coverage of the Poona Pact is fair and there is some substance in his assertion that Ambedkar had a far greater impact on Gandhi than he was sometimes willing to acknowledge. But Gandhi was right when he says, “Nobody has opposed untouchability in such strong language as I.” Gandhi was targeted by fanatical Hindus for two reasons. One was that he spoke for Hindu-Muslim unity. The other was that he consistently spoke for Dalits (Harijans in his words). We know Gandhi gave his life for Hindu-Muslim unity. Many of us do not know that he almost gave his life for Dalits. A bomb was thrown at him in Pune on June 25, 1934, while he was on a tour preaching the eradication of untouchability. He escaped unhurt, but five persons were injured. Gandhi said, “I am not acting for martyrdom, but if it comes in my way...I shall have earned it, and it will be possible for the historian of the future to say that the vow I had taken before Harijans that I would, if need be, die in the attempt to remove untouchability was literally fulfilled.”
This is the first book on Gandhi which tells in some length the almost untold story of Mahadev Desai, the self-effacing and brilliant secretary of Gandhi who died in 1942, just a few days after he was imprisoned along with Gandhi. It was he who protected Gandhi, advised him, gently fought with him and even made him change his views. It was only Gandhi who would have attracted such a personality. It was only a person of Mahadev’s calibre and integrity who would have endured Gandhi for so long, which ultimately killed him at a relatively young age of fifty. Gandhi remembered Desai almost every day until his own death. The other personality who comes out beautifully in the book is Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Sikh princess. It was she who was instrumental in bringing Dr Ambedkar to Nehru’s first cabinet. When madness was unfolding in Punjab, she wrote to Gandhi: “The tragedy is that most of us inwardly rejoice when our community gets its back on the other...I am filled with fear as to where we are drifting.” It was Gandhi and mostly Gandhi who convinced all those who were sane at that time that it was wrong to rejoice at the suffering of others, just because they belonged to a different community. Ultimately, it was his martyrdom that arrested the drift.
Guha also makes a short work of the canard that Gandhi did not do his best to prevent Bhagat Singh and his comrades from being sent to the gallows. He points out that Gandhi wrote a letter to the Viceroy on March 23, 1931, pleading with him to postpone the execution, but they were executed on March 24.
I have a few problems with the book. Gandhi had very different views on science, technology, industrialisation, medicine and many things that were then considered modern. Guha scarcely covers that ground. Gandhi, after coming out of prison in 1944, exchanged a series of letters with P.C. Joshi, the Communist leader, which were discussed at some length when they were compiled into a book. Guha is silent on them. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan does not appear in the narrative after page 550. I am also disappointed that he does not mention the 1931 Karachi Resolution of the Congress, which demanded, among other things, a living wage for industrial workers, suppression of slavery, protection of working women, prohibition of child labour, progressive income tax on agricultural incomes and legacies, adult suffrage, freedom of worship, trade union rights and equal rights for all citizens. It was Gandhi who piloted the resolution through the Subjects Committee, if I am not wrong, and ensured that it was passed unanimously.
Gandhi said this in 1928: “It would be on the question of Hindu-Muslim unity that my Ahimsa would be put to its severest test, and that question presented the widest field for my experiments in Ahimsa. The conviction is still there. Every moment of my life I realise that God is putting me on my trial.” He could not have been more explicit than this. He tried many such experiments. All through his life he was groping for answers and died without really getting them. I am not sure about God, but a few haughty humans tried him and found him wanting. For the humble others, it is his search that engages them even now and makes them realise that he was one of the most glorious personalities ever to grace the earth. Guha has brought this Gandhi to them.