For The Mahatma
This amazed biographer is of little help in redeeming
There are basically two grounds for writing yet
another biography of a historical figure as well known and over-researched
as Mahatma Gandhi. Either the contemporary context has undergone a profound
change to warrant a reinterpretation or there is a body of new research
that alters our understanding of the man and his deeds.
By Stanley Wolpert
Stanley Wolpert's biography is not the work of
a professional historian. Based primarily on his close reading of the
90 volumes of Gandhi's Collected Works and the eight-volume biography
by D.G. Tendulkar, it is essentially a sympathetic assessment, a study
of Gandhi the saint that only tangentially-and with some glaring factual
inaccuracies (like describing the Jallianwala Bagh meeting in Amritsar
as a gathering of peasants "celebrating their spring harvest")
and sweeping over-generalisations-takes into account the environment he
operated in. That's not surprising because Wolpert approached the project
less as a scholar and more as a polemicist. His study was prompted by
his grave disquiet at the May 1998 Pokhran blasts, particularly his "amazement"
that "hardly any Indian voices were raised against so complete a
departure from everything Mahatma Gandhi believed in and had tried to
teach throughout his mature life". An Indophile angst at the disappearance
of a mythical "eternal India" is articulated through a celebration
of Gandhi's piety.
That the Mahatma has been reduced to a mere shibboleth
in India is undeniable. Perhaps it was so even before the crowds celebrated
the "big bomb" in May 1998. The question an analyst has to answer
is: why? It could be that a people steeped in Gandhian values, including
ahimsa, asceticism, vegetarianism and a disdain for westernised modernity,
suddenly rediscovered itself in a militant Hindu garb. Alternatively,
it is entirely possible that Gandhi's leadership was always an expedient
arrangement. While Gandhi's enormous political skills and his mass appeal
were put to full use in the battle against the Raj, the movement was carefully
detached from his idiosyncratic personal philosophy.
SAINT: Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the eponymous film
Unfortunately, Wolpert shies away from frontally
addressing this mismatch. To him, Gandhi was essentially a pious man in
a Christian mould, who was as preoccupied with khadi, abstinence and naturopathy
as he was with leading the Congress. Therefore, while the rest of the
Congress was in a tizzy trying to evolve alternatives to the Muslim League's
Pakistan demand in early 1947, Gandhi's mind was equally focused on his
own bizarre experiments to control his sexual urges. He shocked his devotees
and almost caused a scandal by sleeping naked with his grand-niece Manu.
Earlier, writes Wolpert, Gandhi "experienced
an intensely personal passion for a young, golden-haired, blue-eyed Danish
beauty, Esther Faeing". He wrote her persistent "love letters"-"But
give me the privilege of calling you my child. 'Rock of ages cleft for
me; let me hide myself in Thee.' With deep love." - that lesser mortals
would certainly have regarded as plain suggestive. Gandhi could get away
because he combined the roles of politician and saintly eccentric.
Little wonder, the other stalwarts of the nationalist
movement were schizoid in their scepticism of Gandhism and fanatical faith
in Gandhi. To Wolpert, this meant a departure from the true path shown
by a legatee of Christ. To others, Gandhism was the extra baggage India
had to tolerate to humour a wily leader whose "curious compound of
mysticism and astuteness"-as the South African General Smuts accurately
described it-knocked the political and ethical foundations of the Empire.
Wolpert is "amazed" by India's abandonment of Gandhism. He never
stops to ask whether or not it was accepted in the first place.
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