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Demystifying the Mahatma

By: Uma Majmudar Email By: Uma Majmudar
June 2011
Demystifying the Mahatma

Gandhi’s struggle for India is well-known, but what about his trouble with India? In an interview with Khabar, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld, talks about his book, the man, and the struggle Gandhi had with himself and with the nation whose symbolic father he would become.

Even before Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, was released in India, it created an outcry—the reviews claimed the book talked of a romantic relationship Gandhi shared with a German-Jewish architect called Hermann Kallenbach when he was in South Africa. The state of Gujarat went on to ban the book, and many called the book blasphemous.

The central focus of the book perhaps got lost in the noise of the protests. In our interview, Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of the New York Times, says what he really set out to do was to examine the evolution of Gandhi the social visionary, a “complicated figure” who continued to “struggle with self and doubt until his last days,” and the process of how the man became a Mahatma.

Perhaps because of our common interest in Gandhi, I felt a good rapport with Lelyveld during our hour-long interview at the Decatur Public Library, and contrary to the less-than-flattering image created by critics bent on banning his book, I found him to be an earnest student of Gandhi and the multiple narratives of and about him. His thorough investigative reporting along with his art of story telling makes him a compelling addition in a long line of writers and biographers who have written about the complex Gandhi.

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

How do you approach Gandhi—as a journalist, as a scholar, or as a critic?

I was very interested in Gandhi’s self-creation. I’m interested in the way you might be interested in a character in a novel or a play. I quote at the beginning of the second chapter very striking praise by V.S. Naipaul who said that Gandhi was the least Indian of Indian leaders. You normally talk about the English-educated, Cambridge-educated Nehru who returned to India and who often said that English was the language he was most comfortable in, who admitted that he was illiterate in Hindi and Hindustani. He was never terribly troubled by issues of caste. He was troubled by poverty but he saw it in a Fabian sense, as a matter of class. He didn’t really look at India the way Gandhi did. Gandhi is the man who reads the scriptures, wears a dhoti. It was actually Gandhi who lived 20 years of his life abroad, not Nehru, and Gandhi who gets very disturbed about things he sees in India that many of his comrades don’t see. This all shocks Gandhi. It doesn’t shock anybody else [in India] at that time. How did Gandhi become Gandhi in those eight previous years in South Africa? What I’m trying to do in this book is to approach answering that question. It was a combination of things that did it—it was Tolstoy, it was his contact with the Christian evangelists in some measure, his representation of the Muslim community that brings him in much closer contact with Muslims than a Hindu politician would be likely to have had; his experience in mosques, and finally his experience with the indentured laborers during the strike of 1913. It was the kind of experience he could not have had if he had just lived in India. If he lived his life between Rajkot and Bombay he would not have become Gandhi. He would have become a remarkable man, perhaps he might have become a politician, but he wouldn’t have become the Gandhi we know. It was not that South Africa shaped him, but he had to answer the question in South Africa why should Indians have equality in this society if they don’t even give one another equality. For Gandhi, that’s the beginning of his becoming Gandhi.

Most people accept Gandhi’s idea that he had to be in Johannesburg because of satyagraha. (But) why did he have to be there? To develop a new way of living. He no longer wanted to be a lawyer. He believed in an ideal of selfless service. He was trying to be that Tolstoyan moral man. He was working out his political and spiritual identity on Tolstoy Farm.

What would you say is the major thesis of the book?

The major thesis of the book is that Gandhi, largely through his experiences in South Africa, shaped a set of social values that were unusual for India and that in some ways were in conflict with Indian tradition. And he returned to India with great ambitions as a social reformer and those were, in his view, intrinsic with the whole freedom struggle, that you couldn’t win freedom and not have social equality; you couldn’t call it freedom if untouchability survived; you couldn’t call it freedom if Hindus and Muslims were in conflict; you couldn’t call it freedom if killing was going on; and you couldn’t call it freedom if a large chunk of the population was sunk in poverty. His idea was that freedom wouldn’t just be a negative fact of the departure of the British; it would be the triumph of an act of inner discipline by the whole society. He pursued those goals and in the end he concluded that what triumphed in India was a nonviolence of the weak rather than a nonviolence of the strong. That it wasn’t the discipline and moral commitment of the Indian people that won freedom but it was the collapse of the British will to rule. And that left him with very mixed feelings about the outcome, because it wasn’t what he’d hoped for.

In that sense, in the last years of his life, as you described very movingly, he was disappointed, even heartbroken, almost.

Not all the time, but some of the time. He was also a disciplined, public man. And very often he would have these private moments of something approaching despair, but when he appeared in public, he was the same, determined, cheerful, positive man trying to inspire people to do what he thought was right. He’s a complicated figure, and he exists on many levels—as the spiritual pilgrim, as the national leader, and these are not always perfectly in sync. Sometimes, as the national leader, he has to go along with things that he is not fully in favor of. But on the whole, when you judge political leaders, he is unusually consistent.

Do you think the problems that came up arose because of his straddling two horses at the same time?

More than two. He had so many goals. And sometimes he would disappear to struggle with something the bulk of the society wasn’t worried about. For instance, in the first half of 1946, Gandhi devoted all his energy to creating an institute in Poona for nature cures. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Commission is coming and going, and negotiations are going on with Jinnah, and the Congress is sharply divided about whether to move towards Partition or not. And Gandhi is sort of absent. You can criticize that from a political point of view, but then he returns magnificently. And you have the various events in Noakhali, Calcutta, Delhi, Bihar, that are some of the most glorious passages of his life, although they occurred in tragic circumstances.

The descriptions, “Upper House” and “Lower House” with reference to Kallenbach and Gandhi have been interpreted in sexual terms, giving rise to the controversy that went into the brief banning of the book. But you say he could’ve used the terms humorously.

He certainly used them humorously. Gandhi was a great tease, and Kallenbach was an extravagant man with a lot of money. Gandhi disapproved of that, and was always trying to get him to get rid of his possessions, live simply and adopt the pattern of voluntary poverty. Kallenbach would vow to do that, but then violate his vow. And Gandhi would chide him. So [as in] in most legislatures, the Lower House sees to the expenditures, and the Upper House has to approve them. So that’s how Gandhi gets to be Upper House.

So, what would you conclude about what was going on between Gandhi and Kallenbach?

If you go on beyond the paragraphs that caused the stir, you’ll see that I say, let’s not speculate. Let’s look at what the two men actually said. There’s Kallenbach saying he’s given up his sex life, changed his daily life in order to simplify it. Kallenbach telling Gandhi that milk tends to enhance arousal, and Gandhi saying chocolates are terrible, I see death in chocolates. Gandhi sends Kallenbach a verse on nonattachment to bodily pleasures. They were kind of engaged in a mutual experiment with diet, and control of appetites, both physical and for food. My conclusion is that (the relationship was one of) love and devotion. I don’t think we can be totally insistent that we understand it, but that’s the way I read it. My colleague Ram Guha says Gandhi had many friendships like this. But I don’t think you find many passages in Gandhi’s correspondence like “you remain the nearest and dearest to me.” What that says is Gandhi wants Kallenbach to be by his side for the rest of his life. To me it says it unambiguously. I’m not embarrassed to say this is the most intimate and ambiguous relationship he had. I don’t mean sexually ambiguous, but ambiguous as in hard to understand, and worth thinking about.

There’s an incident that relates to how he suddenly got interested in indentured laborers. I refer to the Balasundaram incident.

Gandhi wrote two accounts of the Balasundaram case. And nobody’s noticed that the two accounts don’t match. He wrote one in 1894-95 shortly after the incident happened. In that account, he says that a man named Balasundaram came into his office and said he’d been attacked by his white employer, was badly injured, and had gone to an official called the Protector of Immigrants who had taken him to the hospital and had him treated. He was now coming to a lawyer to see if he could be freed from his indenture. By the time Gandhi writes the autobiography, 30 years later, he makes the case much more extreme. The man first comes to him, not to the official. And he hasn’t been treated yet. Gandhi takes him to the doctor, and the man is bleeding all over the place. And he says that from then on the indentured looked to him as their protector. But there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. That’s why I say while the received narrative is basically correct, sometimes Gandhi tells the story almost as a parable in order to inspire other people. He’s not interested in historical accuracy as much as he’s interested in motivating his followers. I don’t say he’s deliberately lying, but he’s telling a story the way we all do. I have stories I tell about my journalistic career, and my colleagues all do too. We have our favorite stories that we tell late at night to one another or other people. We tell them well because we’ve been telling them all our life. And they get better and better and better. And we drop out little details that are not particularly useful. And we make it a kind of perfect story. That’s very human, and Gandhi does that.

What were some of Gandhi’s blunders? And his triumphs?

Gandhi was not very good at striking compromises with people even when he wanted to. With Ambedkar and Jinnah he came close to agreement but the agreements didn’t occur. I don’t think the fault was all Gandhi’s by any means, and there were many social and political pressures pulling the communities apart. But it’s very clear—perhaps less so with Jinnah—but Gandhi was trying to recruit Ambedkar into the national movement. And he doesn’t quite succeed. They agree that there’s going to be a struggle against untouchability after the epic fast but Ambedkar quits in six months and Gandhi lets him get away. Maybe that was a blunder. But on the other hand if Gandhi had done what Ambedkar wanted him to do, he would have had to go to war, and become the leader of the Dalits rather than the leader of India. He would have had to go to war with caste India, but he was trying to inspire caste India to revise its thinking.  In some measure I think he succeeded. There came a time when people’s behavior didn’t change but their willingness to defend their behavior did. He won the moral argument with all except the extreme Hindus. And that’s not a small achievement. But he didn’t lead to a transformation.

My summing up is on the last page of the book. It’s very clear. My aim was to write about the Gandhi who was a social reformer and who wanted poorna swaraj. I quote this famous passage called Gandhi’s talisman, which talks about causing doubt and self to melt away. I say, “Causing doubt and self to melt away is a traditional aim of Indian religious discipline involving diet, meditation and prayer. It’s causing them to melt away by means of social and political action that stands out as distinctively Gandhian. As leader and model Gandhi himself mostly passed his ‘test’, but the hungry and spiritually starving millions in large measure remain. Trying to build a nation he couldn’t easily admit that their interests, of Hindus and Muslims, of high caste and untouchable, often clashed. He struggled with doubt and self until his last days but made the predicament of the millions his own, whatever the tensions among them, as no other leader of modern times has. And so his flawed efforts as a social visionary and reformer can be more moving in hindsight than his moments of success as a national leader, if only because the independence struggle long ago reached its untidy end. In India today the term gandhian is ultimately synonymous with social conscience. His example of courage, persistence and identification with the poorest, striving for selflessness, still has a power to inspire, more so even than his doctrines of nonviolence and techniques of resistance, certainly more than his assorted dogmas and pronouncements on subjects like spinning, diet and sex.” I think that’s a conclusion.

[Dr. Uma Majmudar is a former adjunct professor at Emory University’s Department of Religion, and the author of Gandhi’s Pilgrimage Of Faith: From Darkness To Light.]

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