New biography explains Gandhi's successes, failures

  • Article by: CARL ROLLYSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2011 - 1:32 PM

A refreshing and incisive account of a British-trained Indian lawyer who became a world-famous hero of the nonviolence movement.

"Great Soul" by Joseph Lelyveld

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In his latest book, "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India" (Alfred A. Knopf, 410 pages, $27.95), Joseph Lelyveld's title and subtitle are, in a sense, at war with one another and rightfully so. The title is an epithet for the world-famous hero of nonviolence and father of a great new nation inspired by his selfless contributions to the democratic struggle for the independence of colonized peoples. The subtitle reflects the reality of Gandhi's failures and the limitations of a man whose example has been only fitfully followed by his fellow Indians.

Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a reporter for the New York Times for more than 30 years, cultivated an interest in Gandhi while on assignment in South Africa, where his subject spent two decades battling racism and the undemocratic laws and behavior of the British and the Boers. Lelyveld writes with keen perception about the young lawyer, a failure in his native land, who set up his practice in a society inimical to his sense of justice and commitment to the dignity every human being should be accorded.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) first emerges in this book startlingly dressed like a Westerner, one educated in London and expecting to earn his fortune among the Indian population of South Africa. He is treated shabbily aboard trains and even in courtrooms. He protests -- at first only on behalf of himself and his fellow nationals, stressing that he is not a "coolie," not one of those human beasts of burden that form an exploited and dispensable part of colonial rule. Gradually, however, he realizes that he cannot win rights for his people without concerning himself with human rights, per se.

The Gandhi who emerges by 1908 has been reading Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, and, like the former, renounces sex with his wife and devotes himself to the cause of freedom -- literally stripping away his modern dress and adorning himself in simple peasant cloth. His politics become a quasi-religious mantle of authority, as he argues and demonstrates on behalf of the poor. As Lelyveld notes, Gandhi would have been forgotten, however, if he had not turned to the organization of mass demonstrations -- producing, in effect, armies of the nonviolent.

And yet the building of modern India -- indeed, the construction of the modern world -- has not been along Gandhian lines, Lelyveld acknowledges. It is difficult to see how the modern state of India, a nuclear power, could be built on its founding father's principles. At the same time, however, Lelyveld shows that on an everyday level, Gandhi's principles and practice have been emulated by countless individuals who have made the world a better place.

Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York.

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