Of the three ‘laws of writing a biography’ that scholar Nicholas Boyle once shared with historian Ramachandra Guha, perhaps the most significant is: a life is only as good as the portrayal of its secondary characters.
On this yardstick, let us begin with four of the many characters that dot Guha’s second and final part of the Mahatma’s biography, Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World.
The first is a woman Gandhi once called his ‘spiritual wife’. During his Lahore visit in October 1919, Gandhi stayed with Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Saraladevi Chaudhurani, a singer and writer. By then, Gandhi’s vow of celibacy was in its 13th year, but he was immediately, writes Guha, “enchanted with, and by Saraladevi”. He was in Lahore again soon, and wrote to his nephew Maganlal that “Saraladevi has been showering her love on me in every possible way”. She began to feature prominently in Young India.
They exchanged regular letters. “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep,” Gandhi wrote her. The bond, Guha notes, “came very close to” be “consummated sexually” until a worried C Rajagopalachari convinced Gandhi to withdraw as it would bring him “unspeakable shame and death”. He did check himself, but the emotion resonated within him for long. Notably, when Gandhi wrote his autobiography about his experiments with truth and included vivid details of his marital life, he did not include even a veiled reference to Saraladevi.
The second is Gandhi’s adopted son Mahadev Desai. Let us note two instances of their profound relationship. After being chastised by Gandhi over an issue in 1938, Desai wrote a confessional article for
Harijan. Gandhi “heavily edited” it to ensure that the words of his disciple conformed to his ideas, yet he let a small poem by Desai pass: “To live with the saints in heaven/Is a bliss and glory/But to live with a saint on earth/Is a different story.”
Four years later, the saint found himself washing the body of the disciple, an episode Guha records with great poignancy. Desai, his master and others were incarcerated in Pune’s Aga Khan Palace following their arrest after the Quit India movement. Desai died on August 15, 1942, exactly five years before India got independence and just a week after Gandhi had launched the movement. After he was cremated in the palace compound, Gandhi would visit the spot every morning and recite a chapter of the Gita that deals with bhakti. A 73-year-old man recites the Gita to a mound of sand, even applies a speck of the ashes on his forehead—all this when he was imprisoned. What does it say about the old man?
The other two, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and BR Ambedkar, posed the greatest challenge to Gandhi’s authority. They questioned Gandhi’s eligibility to represent Muslims and Dalits, respectively, and accused him of betraying their cause. Gandhi considered untouchability a sin, but supported the caste system, unable to see that it leads to the former. As late as 1921, he advocated opening of wells and schools for untouchables, but not roads and temples. Ambedkar wanted immediate legal reforms for his community, but Gandhi preferred a change of heart among caste Hindus. As Gandhi changed his views following his dialogue with Ambedkar, Guha emphatically gives credit where it is due: “Ambedkar had a far greater impact on Gandhi than he was sometimes willing to acknowledge.”
The biographer defends his subject on several occasions, but also unfailingly underlines the faultlines that marked the Mahatma’s life, including his attempts to impose his ideas, often unjustly, on his sons.
One such instance deals with Gandhi’s failure to counter Jinnah, who defeated Gandhi’s attempt to ensure Hindu-Muslim unity. The partition, a collective failure of several generations, was a personal setback for Gandhi. Guha brings forth a crucial historical perspective. Gandhi’s decision to support the Khilafat movement drew opposition from several quarters, including Jinnah, who, until then, had no affiliation with religious causes of Muslims.
Writing in 1922 against Gandhi, Congress leader C Sankaran Nair made a dire prediction: “Gandhi and his followers have greatly encouraged the growth of Indian Pan Islamism which will in future always be opposed to other Religions and civilizations.” The warning was prescient. Jinnah stayed away from the Khilafat movement and soon parted ways with the Congress too. The rest is history.
Gandhi is Guha’s subject; he is his quest too. The rich biography, which draws from archives spread across several continents, including a large volume of papers kept by Gandhi’s secretary Pyare Lal that Guha is the first one to use, is also a quest into the making of an independent India. The many characters who intersected and illuminated the life of Gandhi, directly or tangentially, made him a metaphor for the freedom movement. The book has many interesting anecdotes, charts political and social debates during the freedom movement, discusses Gandhi’s bond with Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, CF Andrews, etc. It could well be titled India via Gandhi.
Gandhi was also a patriarch who firmly believed himself to be the guardian of the nation. The last century saw many towering leaders, but it is difficult to imagine Mao, Churchill or Roosevelt responding to letters from unknown people wanting to discuss their family issues. No politician would publicly give advice on celibacy or dietary matters, or ask people to avoid reading novels. But Gandhi was Bapu. Even his letters to Saraladevi were signed as ‘Law Giver’.
A patriarch in Indian culture is expected to conceal his emotions. Less than 18 months after Desai’s death, Kasturba died in the same palace. In quick succession, Gandhi lost two persons who had nourished him over the years. How did the old man, still incarcerated, react now? “He grieves over this tragic gap which has come into his life, for she in large measure is responsible for what he is today. But he maintains a philosophic calm…When I and my brothers parted company with the camp on Friday, he cracked his customary jokes as a substitute for tears,” wrote Devdas Gandhi, as he left the palace with his mother’s ashes. There is a figure in Indian culture known for concealing emotions, and he was Gandhi’s ideal.
Guha covers him in a variety of shades. A human, a moralist, a politician, a tactician, a guardian, a deeply passionate and idiosyncratic man. The book is moving without being sentimental; convincing without being polemical.
Guha ends his book with Gandhi’s most remarkable achievement—the pursuit of truth. He bared every aspect of his life before the public, wrote about his lust, mistakes and manias. The few bits that he chose not to write about were part of his correspondence with friends (like the exchanges with colleagues about Saraladevi) and were published posthumously. “God knows what we would think of other celebrated figures…if we were so directly exposed to the intimacies of their lives and thoughts,” Guha writes.
A biography, especially of this scale, is impossible without a significant investment of one’s self in the subject, and the consequent loss or gain of one’s self. A biographer chases the subject in dreams and nightmares, a subject who is now available only in archives. Given that Guha has spent decades attempting to “settle his accounts with Gandhi”, one can only guess how the subject transformed the biographer. But that is a book for the future.
Many in India reject Gandhi. Some carry misgivings, some hate him. Guha’s biography may bring them to review their stand. They may start believing or may want to believe that he, indeed, was the Father of the Nation, a term, incidentally, first used by the great Gandhi dissenter, Subhas Chandra Bose.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently
a fellow at Indian Institute
of Advanced Study, Shimla