Journalist, TV producer and historian Jad Adams takes on one of the world’s most iconic figures in Gandhi. His biography shows that the man who led a movement for India’s independence struggled with his own spirituality, sexuality, eating habits and more. Here, Adams talks to us about the iconic leader.
Read more new and notable nonfiction books in July.
What piqued your interest in Gandhi?
A publisher approached me and asked if I would like to work with them. They said they wanted a series of landmark biographies and asked which major world character I should like to write about. I wanted to write about Gandhi because so much of his life is interesting.
Some historical characters have an interesting political life or family or sex life, but the rest is dull. With Gandhi, it is all fascinating—politics, family, spirituality, travel and sex. I also favor biographical subjects where a great deal of archive material exists.
How long did it take to research and write this book?
I started researching the Nehru Dynasty, the ruling family in India, in 1995 when I was writing the proposal for the BBC and PBS series The Dynasty. I worked on that TV series and wrote a book, also called The Dynasty, to accompany it. That is really when research started on the Gandhi. I already had a pile of accumulated material when I came to write it. The biography took a year of intensive research and writing, I wasn’t working on anything else.
Did you set out to find Gandhi's imperfections and quirks, or did they just emerge?
My procedure is to sit on the shoulder of my subjects and see the world from their point of view. I don’t want to whitewash them or hold them up to ridicule. I want to present their life as they saw it, in context. I do make judgments, but I am always clear what is fact and what is my opinion—the difference between what I know and what I believe.
Was there a particular element of Gandhi's life or piece of research that you found most fascinating?
I found Gandhi’s obsession with chastity fascinating because it was something he developed and molded as his political and spiritual journeys continued. He started off with a normal marriage and family. Then he decided to be celibate, not a particularly unusual thing for a Hindu who already had a family to do.
But then Gandhi started telling everyone else to be celibate, even if they had only just married. Then he engaged in an increasingly bizarre set of intimacies with his female followers, which progressed to the stage of sleeping naked next to teenage girls, supposedly to test his celibacy. It was weird behavior that tested the commitment of his followers to destruction.How do you make sure this biography would stand out among all of the other Gandhi biographies? What did you do to ensure this would be a fresh and interesting read?
There are rather a lot of books about Gandhi. I have read some of them and reviewed some of the more recent ones. Mainly, however, I ignored secondary sources. I looked at the things Gandhi himself said and wrote in the 100 volumes of his collected works, which I read for my book. I also relied heavily on the words of eye witnesses. For example, on the 10-volume biography started by Gandhi’s secretary, Pyarelal [Nayyar], and finished by his sister, Sushila [Nayyar, also Gandhi’s doctor], but others also wrote contemporary accounts of Gandhi.
My book is an antidote to the very partisan life by Louis Fischer of 1951, on which so much later work was based; and to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi movie of 1982, which I think has informed the public view of Gandhi.
Gandhi when he was alive was very keen to share his peculiarities about food, sex and defecation with the wider world. What has happened subsequent to his death is that these matters were suppressed in the attempt to create an image of “Saint Gandhi.” His posthumous image makers wanted to present him as a unifying icon for modern India, where in fact when he was alive he was often a divisive figure.