A thorough sifting of the often contradictory life pursuit of Gandhi (1869–1948), from South African barrister to the Mahatma.
Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times correspondent and editor Lelyveld (Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop, 2005, etc.) tackles the paradoxes inherent in Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, or “firmness in truth”—his version of passive resistance in the face of social injustice, which he honed from his first journalistic writings in South Africa to his epic final demonstrations for Hindu-Muslim harmony shortly before his assassination. The author painstakingly examines the primary sources in Gandhi’s life to provide a rich, multilayered portrait of the evolution of his thought and action—no easy feat, since the Mahatma’s philosophy changed constantly, especially in the early days in South Africa, which served for two decades as his “laboratory” in which to test his ideas of civil disobedience, chastity, communal living, vegetarianism and winning rights for minorities, especially the untouchables. The last months of his stay in South Africa proved crucial, as he put himself on the line for the “coolies” he had heretofore defended in print by organizing a collective strike of indentured servants in Natal. This unleashed “a collective spasm of resentment and hope” that he took back to India in his larger crusade against the strictures of the caste system. Although he claimed always to believe in the equality of all men, Gandhi did not make the leap in the early South African struggle between the plight of the blacks (the “kaffir”) and the Indian untouchables, and only later took up the cause of the minority Muslims (for which he was killed). “To say that Gandhi wasn’t absolutely consistent isn’t to convict him of hypocrisy,” writes Lelyveld. “It’s to acknowledge that he was a political leader preoccupied with the task of building a nation, or sometimes just holding it together.” The author delves deeply into the episodes that tested, and tightened, his convictions along the way: challenging the concept of “pollution” by infiltrating the Vaikom temple in a mass demonstration in 1924; his determination to “fast unto death” to ensure untouchable representation in Congress; eight years practicing what he preached at the Wardha ashram.
An impassioned, carefully executed work of research.