It is always a daunting task to review very lengthy books, and Ramachandra Guha’s latest offering, Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, 1914-1948 (2018) is humongous by any standards. The book spans more than a thousand pages, and covers practically every month of Gandhi’s life in India after his return from South Africa in 1915 to his tragic assassination in 1948. In many ways, it is a sequel to his earlier work on Gandhi—India before Gandhi (2013)—which covered the period of Gandhi’s early life, and the story of his transformative struggle in South Africa, some forty-five years in all, in a staggering six hundred and more pages. Guha, as is plainly obvious from the length of his latest book, is no lover of economy. However, in all fairness, it must be mentioned with some emphasis, that the length of these books can hardly be joined issue with. Notwithstanding its encyclopaedic proportions, Guha’s latest book is an inviting read and delightfully easy on the mind. He has managed to deftly weave drab archival material—submerged in numerous voluminous collections and hitherto inaccessible to the general reader—tastefully into a lively narrative. He presents history with the aplomb of a bard, and tells the story of Gandhi with a greater immediacy and authenticity than it has perhaps been told before.
In cricketing parlance, something that Guha is fond of, it might be said that he is only an accidental historian, and does a running commentary on Gandhi, whose layered life he is having the privilege of both unfolding and witnessing from the hallowed galleries of the archives. He positions himself as an assimilator, a gatherer, and a collector of forgotten and unknown facts; as though he were rummaging into the cupboard of history for nuggets hitherto unseen, for any piece of valuable information gathering dust, or even for the conspicuous misses by Gandhi scholars so far. He delves deep into private papers, newspaper editorials—foreign and domestic contemporary records, government reports and personal memoirs of British officials and politicians to put together an exhaustive, authoritative chronicle of Gandhi’s life, as it happened on a day-to-day basis.
It might be impossible to give a summary of the book in any profitable way, at least none that would do any justice to the depth of the narrative or the expanse of the subject matter covered by Guha, but a brief idea about the structure and contents of the book would help prospective readers to understand the enormity of the exercise undertaken by him. The volume is divided into five parts, with thirty-eight chapters in all, and an Epilogue—discussing the relevance of Gandhian ideas in our times—at the end. Part One covers the early period of Gandhi’s journey in India, from his return in 1915 to 1922, and it is called ‘Claiming the Nation’. Gandhi’s rise in the Congress after the demise of Tilak, his epochal Satyagrahas of Champaran and Kheda, and the noncooperation movement is discussed at length in this part. Part Two is about Gandhi’s emergence as an international figure from 1922 to 1931; this part is aptly titled ‘Reaching Out to the World’ where Guha discusses the famous trial and incarceration of Gandhi, the Dandi March and the Round Table Conference in particular. Part Three titled ‘Reform and Renewal’ chronicles the events in Gandhi’s life from 1931 to 1937 where, arguably, the most important episode is his confrontation with Ambedkar. Part Four, ‘War and Rebellion’ chronicles Gandhi from 1937 to 1944. This part captures the gathering darkness that had begun to loom, the world was witnessing the most savage war in the history of mankind and serious questions were raised over the efficacy of nonviolence, even as Gandhi sounded his last political battle cry of ‘Quit India’. Gandhi had to grapple with the communal question and suffer the loss of Kasturba’s death. Part Five, pointedly named as ‘The Last Years’, spans from 1944 to 1948. The last part is the most poignant as it shows a heartbroken, dismayed Gandhi unable to prevent the vivisection of India and yet finding superhuman courage to break the cycle of mindless carnage by undertaking what Guha describes as his greatest fast before he was martyred by a fanatic. The narrative in all these parts and the thirty-eight chapters is interspersed with Gandhi’s personal evolution, his internal struggles and his constant endeavours towards self-examination.
Guha goes much beyond the Collected Works, drawing upon more than sixty different archival collections from across the world, as he says, but the most important source for him are the Gandhi Papers passed on to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library by Dr Sushila Nayar, the sister of Pyarelal who was Gandhi’s secretary after Mahadev Desai’s death in 1942. The Gandhi Papers were only recently put in the public domain and Guha uses them judiciously to bring to light, for the first time, many unknown facts and anecdotes about Gandhi; many new letters written to and by Gandhi are also cited, tantalizingly opening up new facets to his persona. One such episode is the revelation of Gandhi’s complex relationship with Saraladevi Chaudharani, whom he refers to as his ‘spiritual wife’. There are many such insights that Guha is able to give to the reader based on his robust sifting of the vast collection of Gandhi Papers which, as he tells us, run into thousands of files. Guha looks not just at Gandhi, the public figure, but also at great length the private universe of Gandhi, especially his self-examinations on the controversial issue of celibacy, his ‘torturous’ relationships with his wife and four sons, his intimate conversations with close confidants—who otherwise are merely secondary characters in other accounts of his life—and his estimations by colleagues; and, arguably it is here, in this respect, that Guha’s book shines most luminously, having drawn from fresh matter that is available in the Gandhi Papers, which he boasts have not been used before to this extent by any other biographer.
Guha’s method is quintessentially one of a biographer, with the laborious burden of meticulously recording the goings-on in Gandhi’s life, in the utmost possible detail, for as many days as the available material permits; this partly explains the gigantic size of the book, but on the other hand, this modus operandi creates a necessary difficulty. The sheer volume of material that Guha deals with makes it impossible to pause for any reasoned analysis of Gandhi’s actions, or pronounce any educated judgement over his methods. Always, the story has to move forward, Gandhi has to grow, and his life has also to be woven with the ebb and flow of the national movement; quite simply then, the luxury of any thematic treatment of contested issues is scarcely there, as the author cannot perch himself on any branch for long, he must fly along with the narrative so as to meet the pressing demands of chronology. There is no respite in the narration; the pages march on relentlessly, covering sometimes many days of a single month in Gandhi’s tumultuous life. To his credit, however, Guha is able to reconstruct Gandhi’s life for the avid reader, and what is surely a worthy quality of his writing—which is consciously unassuming in style—is that he manages to hold interest, captivate, surprise and sometimes shock the reader with new material that he digs into, to punctuate his narrative at every turn. Guha has largely been able to, as he promises in the preface of the book, ‘track Gandhi’s arguments in the field of politics, social reform, religious relations and self-improvement.’
Guha favours, what I might call, a sympathetic approach towards Gandhi, though contentious in many respects—allegedly for his failure to critique Gandhi incisively—as would be evident in the some not so flattering reviews that the book has garnered so far. I wish to say though, in my opinion, most such reviews are harsh, and do not properly appreciate the challenges before the author in attempting a massive exploration of Gandhi’s life, arguably not yet done on such a gargantuan scale, at least on the scale that Guha has envisaged. The basic intent of the book obviously then is not to excoriate, but rather to resurrect an extraordinary life in all its ordinariness, in its day-to-day simplicity. This biography is primarily a lengthy compendium of all imaginable sources on Gandhi fastened together by an elegant framework of storytelling. It is a story not just of Gandhi’s rich public presence on the world stage, his somewhat mysterious and often absent private world, but also of the ups and downs in the national struggle for Independence, as viewed from the vantage point of Gandhi, its chief protagonist. The large canvas of the book sometimes prevents any focused attention to key events, which loom large in the background, as Guha chooses to take a plunge into Gandhi’s private correspondences or meetings with his collaborators for unpacking the great man’s psyche. So, in a manner of speaking, it can be said that this book is as much, if not more, a continuous charting of Gandhi’s mindscape while he lived through momentous and epochal changes around him, many which he himself ushered in, as it is a history of India’s long march to freedom.
Guha is acutely conscious of the monumental task at hand, especially the difficulty in assessing a complex, often contradictory, and sometimes a manifestly irrational Gandhi. He quotes an old friend of Gandhi, from his London days, who remarked in 1934 that ‘Gandhi is a problem. To Rulers and Governors he is a thorn in their side. To logicians he is a fool. To economists he is a hopeless ignoramus. To materialists he is a dreamer. To communists he is a drag on the wheel. To constitutionalists he represents rank revolution.’ Guha goes on to add more to this list by suggesting that to ‘Muslim leaders he was a communal Hindu. To Hindu extremists he was a notorious appeaser of Muslims. To the untouchables he appeared a defender of high-caste orthodoxy. To the Brahmin he was a reformer in too much of a hurry.’ Nonetheless, Guha is frequent in his criticism of Gandhi, intervening to disrupt the flow of the narrative whenever necessary, as the reader would notice; however, he studiously refrains from imposing subsequent interpretations to Gandhi’s words and actions, as they are often distorted or falsely projected in his reckoning. Guha is categorical in stating that he has ‘sought to reconstruct these arguments as they unfolded at the time.’ We might note here that this has become a bone of contention between Guha and some reviewers of the book who, as mentioned above, believe that Guha has been unfairly kind to Gandhi, especially because he does not engage with the recent scholarship on Gandhi which offers a pointed critique of the Mahatma on his ambivalent stance on caste, gender and race, even though he records Gandhi’s weaknesses on above counts. Citing Arundhati Roy and Arun Shourie as unreasonable voices on the far Left and the far Right, Guha says that their estimation of Gandhi and Ambedkar respectively is flawed and presents the classic case of suppressio veri suggestio falsi, as neither Gandhi was an enemy of Dalits, nor Ambedkar an enemy of the nation. Guha refuses to get drawn into this debate and instead shows Gandhi as a bundle of complex contradictions, and yet as someone who in the course of his long life was able to shun many of his earlier prejudices.
Guha’s epic on Gandhi, if I may use this phrase with care, is like a majestic museum sprawling over the variegated life of indisputably the most well-known Indian. I am no historian, and I don’t claim to have sufficient expertise to judge Guha’s Himalyan endeavour on hard historical merit, but I can attest unequivocally to it that his book as a tale of Gandhi’s life manages to leave a deep and lasting impression. While reading the book, the insightful reader would not fail to notice that this museum has been built brick by brick, and Guha devotes attention to every detail; the rhythm and the pace of the narrative, to borrow another cricketing analogy, is like that of a test match, and the soul and mind of Gandhi is slowly laid bare to the audience. There is no hurry, no abrupt summations, and the author convincingly draws the reader not just to witness, but also to soak in the long, and often painful, march of Gandhi to greatness.
What can be said about Gandhi that hasn’t been said before? Everything and nothing. Guha’s book is a reiteration of Gandhi’s humanity. It is a testimony to his unparalleled courage, his unshaken conviction in his beliefs through good times and bad. Gandhi was not without flaws and the book makes no attempt to hide them, albeit, in a sterling, honest manner, Guha refuses to belittle Gandhi, to reduce him to his frailties. Almost surreptitiously, page after page, Guha manages to humanize Gandhi, make him accessible and identifiable by revealing his human struggle, his dilemmas and moments of vulnerability that are strewn across the book. Gandhi’s greatness is not thrust upon the reader, and neither is an argument made for the same by Guha, but his greatness emerges from the narrative, it rises from the little stories and anecdotes, from instances of self-effacement and sacrifice, from the tales of Gandhi’s sensitivity towards the poor and his unbounded love for his country and people. It is not until the final few chapters and the epilogue does one realize that one is reading about the historical Gandhi—the Mahatma, the paragon of virtue. Guha’s account is not hagiographical as some have insinuated, on the contrary, a close reading of the book makes it clear that Guha offers, in parallel to the evolving narrative, a continuous criticism of Gandhi’s positions—even if it is not developed fully, or laced with the phraseology of subsequent scholarship, or accorded the seriousness of a judgemental label. In any case, it would be unfair to suggest that Guha brushes the weaknesses of Gandhi aside just because he is not as virulent as his critics would have liked.
Syed Areesh Ahmad teaches Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, Delhi.