Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

Article excerpt

Is it possible for one man to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings?

While employed at the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld reported from

South Africa, and then from India. Decades before, one of the

world's most famous individuals, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -

better known as Mahatma ("great soul") - had lived in both

countries in the same consecutive manner. As a result, Lelyveld began

thinking and writing about the complicated, consequential man,

assassinated in 1948 at age 78.

Now in his seventies, Lelyveld has written an unusual book, hoping

to find the words to understand Gandhi, a man who in many ways, to be

sure, was a saint - but a saint who sometimes contradicted himself

and who pretty much failed to change the world in the ways that he

wanted.

To call Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India a

biography is to stretch that genre's meaning. The book does not

claim to cover all the important events and individuals in Gandhi's

life; its progression is not always chronological; and Lelyveld's

speculative passages undocumented by hard evidence are numerous. To

call the book an extended essay is to stretch another genre's

boundaries, because normal essays do not go on for nearly 400 pages.

Review of "Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an

Empire"

Perhaps the best classification for the book is to call it a

rumination, based on copious research and intellectual passion and an

author's search for the answer to this question: Is it possible for

one individual to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and

misunderstandings over a vast geographical territory?

Born in 1869 near the Arabian Sea in the vast land mass encompassing

multiple languages and cultures now known as India, it seemed as if

Gandhi's future would be mapped out by his family, as was customary

then. He was betrothed by his family at age six to Kastur Makanji;

they married when Gandhi was 13 and became parents as teenagers. To

some extent, Gandhi broke free of the imposed constraints, traveling

to England at age 19 to study law. He became a lawyer in Bombay, but

in 1893 his lawyerly vocation took him to South Africa, where he

would remain nearly full time until 1914.

Many other men and women born in India resided in South Africa, and

those exiles often received second-class treatment from the reigning

Caucasians of Afrikaner Dutch descent, the same ruling class that

treated South African blacks as subhuman.

Nothing about Gandhi as a young Indian lawyer in South Africa

immediately suggested he would become an apostle of passive

resistance in a struggle to deliver de facto and de jure equality to

the oppressed in either South Africa or India. Nor did anybody

foresee that Gandhi - a husband of an arranged marriage who

fathered four sons with his wife - would soon renounce sexual

contact, meat and most other foods, and would begin what seems to

have been a homoerotic relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish

architect transplanted from East Prussia to South Africa. …

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