10 May, 2010Issue 12.2Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Elephant Traps in the Hunt for Gandhi

Jad Adams

foerJad Adams
Gandhi: Naked Ambition
Quercus Books, 2010
288 Pages
ISBN 978-1849162104

Mohandas K. Gandhi’s life is the ultimate challenge for a biographer; it was so multifaceted, and there is so much surviving contemporary information. Where there is little or no biographical data for some world figures, for Gandhi there is a superabundance. Many people’s lives yield one or two aspects of interest—perhaps an incandescent political career and a lurid sex life—but nothing else worthy of comment. It is not unusual to encounter eminent people who have a complex relationship with food, or with religion. In the case of Gandhi, everything is fascinating: his political life, spiritual life, family life, and sex life. His relationship to food could fill a volume in itself.

In all these areas, Gandhi’s own testimony survives. His collected works run to 100 volumes of books, articles, letters, speeches, and written answers to questioners when he was observing silent days. He knew what use would be made of this material, and he was not encouraging: “My writings should be cremated with my body. What I have done will endure, not what I have said or written.” Notwithstanding his warning, I determined while writing Gandhi: Naked Ambition to work almost exclusively on primary sources: on his own writing and that of people who were close to him.

It may be just my fancy, but I think even the library assistants in the British Library were impressed with my diligently appearing day by day to work through 100 identical volumes in the course of a year. The 97 volumes of text (the other three are indexes) have their own problems. Published between 1958 and 1997, difficulties with the scheme set in early when new material was found for Gandhi’s student life in London. Consequently, the first volume was reprinted with additions in the correct chronological place. This led purchasers of the initial print run to question where they stood if new editions were going to be brought out for every volume. The publishers therefore printed the volumes from 1 to 90, then published seven volumes of supplementary information that had been uncovered since the appropriate volume had gone to press.

The resultant Collected Works were obviously not now in chronological order, and times had changed in the world of publishing, so a CD with all the works in chronological order was produced in 1999. This caused a storm among Gandhi scholars for its errors and omissions, but that version remains the most accessible. It has been available since 2002 on the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi website, headed with the remark: “Below volumes form the revised—erroneous—version of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi as published on the CD-Rom…Page and volume nos. are not identical with the original print version of the 1960’s-1990’s.” Greater attention paid to this helpful warning would have saved me much misery at the stage of proof-reading the references of my book.

So much for the practical problems of dealing with the material. There are further difficulties. Any reliance on Gandhi’s own writing immediately opens up questions of trust: did he tell the truth? His autobiography is subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, but what kind of truth was it that he believed in? Any politician could say they experimented with the truth, but it would not increase our trust in them.

Many events in Gandhi’s development are far from clear by their own lights. There is some evidence that the personal incompetence Gandhi reported in his early public life has been exaggerated, giving a more dramatic impression of his later resounding success. It appears that his contribution to South African politics was greatly overstated in some subsequent accounts, perhaps because they relied so heavily on Gandhi’s version which never presented itself as anything but subjective. Maureen Swan in Gandhi: The South African Experience (1985) notes, among other matters, the extent to which Muslim merchants whom Gandhi represented were already deeply involved in political discourse before he stepped in to lead them. His followers were certainly left disappointed after his supposed agreements with the South African government unravelled.

It is not over such matters or their interpretation, however, that the real question of Gandhi’s veracity emerges. In terms of mere fact, Gandhi’s truth is selective not so much for what he wants to conceal as for what he wants to explore in his past: his moral development. His Autobiography (1927) started as a series of instructive articles in his newspaper Young India, where each separate chapter stood alone with its own moral. The work was therefore fashioned as a series of lessons, as “the trials of Gandhi” or “Gandhi’s progress”, in perhaps conscious imitation of one of his favourite books, Bunyan’s spiritual biography The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In short, Gandhi was less concerned with the factual accuracy of an incident than with its spiritual meaning.

For Gandhi, the striving for truth was not a search for factual accuracy (to which a biographer might aspire) but a stretching out toward spiritual perfection. For him, truth was eternal; and conversely, if something were transient it could not be true. “Often in my progress I have found faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth, God, and the daily conviction is growing on me that He alone is real and all else is unreal”, he wrote. Gandhi’s truth was the divinity: “Truth is God, or God is nothing but Truth.”

He would elaborate his position to those bemused by it:

I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things…What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject.

More straightforwardly, he explained: “My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth, as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth.” Hence the biographer’s dilemma in interpreting Gandhi’s writing about his own life.

The abundance of biographical material on Gandhi extends to material from first-person witnesses. Gandhi’s principal secretary from 1917 to his death in 1942 was Mahadev Desai. He wrote nine volumes of diaries, Day to Day with Gandhi. Most of these were letters and accounts of events that were later compiled in the collected works, or the ten volumes of biography titled Mahatma Gandhi. Another secretary was Pyarelal Nayar, always known simply as Pyarelal, who was second in command from 1920 until Desai’s death while in prison with Gandhi. In response to that bereavement, Gandhi called on his retinue to “keep ourselves so busy that there is no time for idle thought, depressing or otherwise.” One diversion he was persuaded to adopt was telling his own life story to his companions, so his principal biographers Pyarelal and his sister Dr Sushila Nayar (who was Gandhi’s personal physician) heard many details that do not appear in his autobiographies.

Between Gandhi’s death in 1948 and his own death in 1982, Pyarelal was keeper of the Gandhian flame, working on his ten-volume biography. Sushila Nayar, who was 15 years younger than Pyarelal, took up the task of completing the biography after her brother’s death. She died in 2001. The biography was published between 1958 and 1997 in more than ten books, as some volumes are in two parts.

These biographers were extremely close to their subject, so close that they have their own stories to tell—and to conceal. For example, Pyarelel followed Gandhi’s wishes in writing about Gandhi’s sexual experiments with young women including his 19-year-old grand-niece Manu. However, Pyarelal is surprisingly coy in not mentioning Gandhi’s naked bathing, naked massages, and sleeping with his sister Sushila. A biographer needs to be aware, too, of a further dimension here: 47-year-old Pyarelal was obsessed with Manu and wanted to marry her. Gandhi disapproved of his pursuit of Manu, but Sushila pressed her to accept Pyarelal, presumably because that would wrest her from Gandhi and leave a vacancy that she herself could again fill. The story then is also that of the biographers, living in close physical proximity to their subject.

More distanced writers proliferate—the British Library lists 2229 books with Gandhi as subject—most of them about “Mahatma” Gandhi (though with a sprinkling of books about other notables with the same name). A Baptist minister, the Reverend Joseph Doke, wrote the first adulatory biography of Gandhi in 1909 when his subject was 40. Fifteen years later came a biography of Gandhi that introduced him to a wide and sympathetic audience. The uncompromising title chosen by Romain Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi: The Man Who Became One with the Universal Being, suggests a certain lack of objectivity.

Journalism is a guide in part to what happened, but more importantly to how events were perceived. Gandhi always enjoyed a good press. His image—the loin-clothed sage, mischievous, defiant, devout, with an excellent command of English—was made for journalists, many of whom made no pretence to impartiality (“Saint Gandhi” was TIME magazine’s man of the year in 1930). Two of the reporters who travelled with him in 1947, from the UPI agency and The Hindu, took over typing Gandhi’s letters for him as a labour of love. The governor of Bengal, Sir Frederick Burrows, was reported as being “very relieved that Gandhi had left Bengal at this time, as it had taken 20 of his best police to protect him; and he was sarcastic over an American correspondent’s article headed ‘Gandhi walks alone’.” As well as the police, Gandhi had a considerable entourage and, of course, the press themselves.

Much truth resides in anecdote. After Gandhi had visited Oxford one of the dons he met, the missionary and historian Edward Thompson, remarked: “Not since Socrates has the world seen his equal for absolute self-control and composure”. But he was quite able to understand, he added, why the Athenians had made Socrates drink hemlock. It is a remark with which it is easy for a biographer to concur.

Jad Adams is an historian, author, independent television producer, and Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of English, School of Advanced Study, University of London. His biography, Gandhi: Naked Ambition, was released by Quercus Books in March.