- Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire
There are only a handful of personalities as much known, researched, and written about as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948). While the number of his biographies continues to soar, one wonders about the relevance of yet another book on him. The book under review neither makes a new argument nor renews our insight into a hitherto hidden Gandhi, but it stands out by presenting Gandhi in a comprehensive, encyclopedic, and exhaustive manner. It must be mentioned that this book was originally published as Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People, and an Empire by Penguin, New Delhi, in 2006. The biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, has been working on his grandfather's life history for several decades now, and it is the integration of a vast range of sources on Gandhi—from both public and personal archives—that makes this book informative and authoritative. Rajmohan Gandhi portrays the "father of the Indian nation" through various phases of his life and engages with multiple issues and contemporary personalities that Mohandas Gandhi encountered.
While our shelves, libraries, and bibliographies are flooded with biographies on Gandhi, this book manages to find its place in two respects. First, it surely is an intense, single piece of information on the evolution of Gandhi as a leader, statesman, and human being. Most [End Page 787] other biographies focus either on one aspect of Gandhi or a particular time period of his life. Second, this biography attempts to bring together the man, Mohandas Gandhi, and the legend, the Mahatma ("the Great Soul"). This attempt should be seen as a way to understand Gandhi not as someone resting on a high pedestal but as one who was susceptible to flaws and follies in his life and deeds. Indian critiques of Gandhi have come from various groups of people including Hindu nationalists, Muslims, Christians, and dalits or the lower caste Hindus, both during his lifetime and after. But the intent of and success of the biographer in employing a critical look at Gandhi's life needs to be carefully observed and analyzed, particularly since Rajmohan engages with the critiques of Gandhi rather symptomatically. But it is this Gandhi—the saint and the politician—that Rajmohan sets out to develop through his narrative of the persona in order to tell the story of a man, his people, and an empire.
Gandhi is a chronological biography. It begins with his birth in 1869 and ends with his assassination in 1948. In between those years, the book recounts numerous stories related to Gandhi and incidents of various proportions that happened during his lifetime. Although Gandhi came from a vegetarian household, he ate meat surreptitiously as a teenager, but he gave it up under guilt and later became an expert on vegetarianism while he studied in London. After obtaining the coveted bar-at-law, he returned to India and later went to South Africa in search of a lucrative legal career. His initial stay was supposed to be a year but ended up as a twenty-two-year-long sojourn in South Africa, advancing his career, fighting for fundamental human rights, and devising ways to deal with the oppressive power of the colonial state. He worked with people of different backgrounds, including Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, and Christians, and championed the cause of the Indian diaspora and the colored people living across South Africa. This period (1893–1914) saw the making of the Mahatma for the world. But Rajmohan Gandhi lucidly depicts how the same Mahatma lost out on personal relationships. While Mohandas Gandhi honed his tool of Satyagraha ("truth force") against the British authorities, Gandhi's relations with his sons became complex, particularly in the case of his eldest son, Harilal, who complained of negligence and later even rebelled against the very person the world followed.
For his ideology of passive resistance, Gandhi sincerely acknowledged his gratitude to thinkers such as the Russian Leo Tolstoy and the American Henry David Thoreau. But at the same time he felt...