By Yogesh Chadha
On the 50th anniversary of Indian independence we have a new biography of the man many call the Father of the Nation – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
This is no surprise. The last 10 years have seen an explosion in the biography genre. Many of these weighty tomes are scarcely worthwhile, being resurrections of “neglected” figures well-forgotten long ago, or painful attempts by academics to write the “definitive” life of someone we already know more than enough about.
Thankfully, Rediscovering Gandhi, despite its suspicious title, is not that kind of book.
Instead it is a cool professional volume, of reasonable length, that strings the basic facts into a balanced narrative. In particular, Yogesh Chadha is to be complimented on his ability to quote at length from speeches and letters without being boring or irrelevant. Very few biographers, and virtually none in the 20th century, have managed to do that.
This is not to say the book is without its faults. Near the end it loses sight of its subject and attempts to write the history of Indian independence. And the last 40 pages present a striking shift in tone and style as Chadha examines in detail the assassination conspiracy and subsequent trial. It is all very interesting, but it seems like part of another book.
Gandhi’s life contained great triumphs and failures. He successfully led the struggle for Indian civil rights in South Africa as well as the fight against the Hindu caste system. But he also lived to see his dream of a united and non-violent India destroyed by faction and intolerance.
Central to Chadha’s presentation is the split between the public and the private man. Without question Gandhi was one of the most important and influential figures of the 20th century. The Mahatma (Great Soul) belonged to the ages, and inspired such later heroic leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. This historical greatness was the product of immense personal integrity and almost fanatical self-discipline.
Like most self-made men, however, the Mahatma could also be arrogant and self-centered. His claim to be the “Father of the Country” is actually rather weak, and he was never a very successful statesman. Meanwhile, things were even worse on the personal front than they were on the political. Co-victim of an arranged child marriage, Gandhi was ill-suited for a role as family man. A self-diagnosed “strain of cruelty” marked his close personal relationships, and perhaps it was just as well that he considered his real family to be “every living thing.”
When Richard Attenborough was preparing to make his film on Gandhi he asked Jawaharlal Nehru for advice. “Whatever you do, do not deify him,” Nehru said. “He was too great a man to be deified.” Chadha has followed the advice that Attenborough largely ignored and has refrained from writing the life of a saint. But nowhere is the man diminished.
For students of Indian history, Rediscovering Gandhi may have little new to say. But for others it will provide an excellent opportunity to understand this important, inspirational, and very real man.
Review first published August 16, 1997.