Review: Gandhi by Catherine Clement

Gandhi - The Power of Pacifism

Though I already had more than four books on Gandhi, I couldn’t resist myself from buying this one from the Strand annual sale not only because it was compact and tiny, but also because it had some amazingly rare photographs and all the pages were glossy. And as it may have it, this also became the first book I read on Mahatma – the great soul. In India, for a commoner, Gandhi is a man nearing god with almost no blemishes and above all dry clouds of criticism. The sub-heading of the book, The Power of Pacifism, suggested to me that this also would be on the same lines. But it turned out differently.

The book starts with colorful pictorials depicting Gandhi as a child and in his youth amongst his family in Gujarat. During adolescence he went through the usual rebellious phase and tasted meat, saw girls other than his wife and even smoked. Then it covers in brief the rule of
the British over India and the fighting between the Mughals and the British. The author also gives an introductory overview of the various religions in India and specifically of few Hindu gods and goddesses. The photographs of Gandhi, when he was seven years old, and another with his brother Laxmidas deserve a mention. His friendship with Sheikh Mehtab, who took him to a brothel, is interesting to say the least. The incident where the young Gandhi, overpowered by lust, goes to make love with his already pregnant wife Kasturba and in midst is interrupted by a servant to inform him of the death of his father, Karamchand Gandhi, is an important one and leaves him feeling guilty of, first, neglecting his father and, second, of having been punished by god in the form of death of his young child (with whom Kasturba was pregnant during that time). He later left for England in 1887 to learn law.

The next sections cover his various experiences in England, in India (after coming back from England) and then in South Africa, where he went to practice law. The numerous photographs, mostly black and white but sometimes poorly (not by the publisher) converted to color make it a very visually appealing read. The coming of age of Gandhi can be attributed to various stages of life he went through in South Africa. When he finally came back to India, after being hardened by his own experiments towards achieving freedom, not from British but from oppression, his stature already had swelled and he undertook a year long journey of the country to see how his country was and what the plaguing troubles were. His interactions with Tagore are mentioned, including his visit to Shantiniketan. He took to championing the cause for indigo planters, for textile workers and, in the least, for the millions of oppressed Indians. His various undertakings of fasting left him debilitated, but only physically. His spirit was much more courageous. His innumerable stints in different jails are documented and described as times of rest – for only then he could sleep and devote time to himself. His famous ‘salt satyagraha’ is very well written about with a clinching image of him bending down to break the ‘salt law’. His one fistful of salt was later “sold to the highest bidder for 1600 rupees”. His visits to England were euphoric for the British media and he met workers, servants, workers and commoners and interacted with them openly. He, to the imperialistic Churchill, was a “seditious half-naked fakir”. A photograph of him with Charlie Chaplin, not in his comical hat-and-moustache avatar, makes one wonder what they would have talked about. The rift between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the issue of the Untouchables highlights that later for Gandhi the reform of the social India became as much, and probably more, important than just gaining freedom. Nehru, initially, as evidenced in this book and also in Sarvepalli Gopal’s authoritative biography, was confused with this – for him independence was the only issue worth fighting at that time. Gandhi thought of not just freedom from oppression from outsiders but also about freedom from our own inhibiting practices. Then follow the Quit India Movement, World War II and, finally, the Independence (on the specific day of 15th-August-1947 he fasted for he was unhappy about his failed dream of a united India). His fasts continued for Hindu-Muslim unity, purity and repentance on behalf of wrongs by others.

His end tragically at the hands of a Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse, and the ensuing shock is covered through nine memorable photographs.

As I mentioned earlier, this book does not treat Gandhi as a demi-god and laid bare many uncomfortable facts about his life. To this contributed the most the covering of his relationship with various women in his ashram (relationship not as in a physical one). His self-trials at testing himself when sleeping with his adopted grand-niece, of getting attracted to foreign women in England and with few other followers only point to his earthly existence. After all he was flesh and blood in living. My own surprise on reading about this led me to search more about this and led me to various links (this and this can be primarily read to get an idea). But I disagree in the way in which these ‘revelations’ have been interpreted and have clouded the greatness of the man. For me, Gandhi was and will be a man beyond praise and admiration – he practiced to a great extent what he preached. But, as I admit, this doesn’t shield him from the various temptations a man must face over a lifetime. His sleeping naked with grand-niece and taking bath with them to test his and their commitment to their vows show that his interpretation was incorrect – for he was advocating something against Nature. His advice to married people to abstain and to have sex only for procreation and later advocating no sex at all do not merit any logic. These were his limitations – his wrong interpretations of things around him. Why did he think being a celibate would help him or anyone else in the quest of freedom? Why did he sleep naked with others to test when anyways he had decided on celibacy? The answer to these questions I do not have. And to me it only shows that after all, he was one from within our people. These do not take away or blot his greatness owing to which India became free (not to take away contributions of others). His sacrifices taken together with his ‘experiment’s of sexual nature only show that to fight for the right being a human is enough.

The book makes for a good light weight read on Gandhi without delving into the overbearing, dense and mired political history of India. Towards the end a number of documents are mentioned – his speech in Benares which led to controversy; his rules of satyagrahasrama; his tips on how to fast properly; his writing on Hitler and the persecution of Jews; his letters to different people on the 15th of August, 1947; an article on Madeleine Slade – Miraben; Romain Rolland and his work on Gandhi; Alexandra David-Neel on his death; and Sudhir Kakar’s psychoanalysis of Gandhi (I had attended a session of Sudhir Kakar during the Tata Literature Mumbai festival in November, 2012). 


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