Gandhi’s early Indian biographers, Dinanath Gopal Tendulkar and Pyarelal Nayar, wrote even lengthier accounts than Guha’s, but their object was to make evidence available for the first time. Guha’s aim seems not to be to open up Gandhi’s life story, but rather to summarise it as a battle against imperialism on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other. Yet given the Mahatma’s very public life, the only serious question it raises is whether a genuinely new biography of the man is even possible. The story of Gandhi’s life has taken on almost a ritual form in India, with readers proceeding step by step through a much-loved story as through the Stations of the Cross.
In an era of quick and quick-tempered politics, replete with reductive black-and-whitery about the world, it is a relief to find the art of the doorstop biography still alive: celebrations of human complexity and colour, built on serious archival graft and fashioned through top-class storytelling into a detailed narrative, with a point to make. At this, Ramachandra Guha excels – though he might have been a little less reticent in stating his case.
Ramachandra Guha, a noted historian, declines to engage with other biographers, which is just as well, for this book is long enough; it follows his shorter Gandhi Before India, on his subject’s life before 1914. Guha begins with a Gandhi almost all of whose adult life had been lived in South Africa or England. Touring India, Gandhi introduced the notion of a nationalist revolution that would be based on peasant and craft traditions, not the industrialism of the West. It was an idealised version of peasant life from a man who knew very little of it... Guha’s is a thoroughly researched and well-written account and a faithful chronicle, though it lacks an overwhelming motivating force. It does not present a grand trajectory of the life, and there is no burning question for which it gives the answers. Most of the information here is in the public domain, though I was surprised by a few things.
As I put down the book, I was struck that Guha had let us know enough to achieve what the best biographers aim for: a rendering of the subject in such fullness that the reader feels himself wrestling directly with the protagonist, his time, and his ideas.
...Guha’s astute contextualising draws on a wider range of materials than any of Gandhi’s many previous biographers, thanks to his scouring of dozens of archives across several continents. And while it seems odd to say of a more than 1,000-page book that it has a terseness about it, Guha achieves a taut, unornamented prose that rings true to his subject. His account of Gandhi’s last decade — which he lived in painful disorientation — is particularly admirable. As the world slid into cataclysmic violence, and India began to fissure along lethal religious lines, Gandhi suffered the deaths of those closest to him, saw his political protégés break ranks with him, and felt his body rebel against his struggles to master it. Guha’s biography builds with perfect tone and economy of expression towards its moving conclusion.
His narrative is sympathetic, if needlessly detailed in places: sadly its bulk may deter many would-be readers... Mr Guha also reveals a long-kept, juicy secret: in the 1920s Gandhi had a prolonged (if unconsummated) infatuation with the niece of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet, whom he called his wife in some letters... The author skilfully traces the evolution of Gandhi’s political beliefs... Many details in the book are fresh. More closely than any other biographer, Mr Guha tracks the forgotten influence of Gandhi’s long-serving secretary, Mahadev Desai. He offers lively trivia... But Mr Guha’s analysis is most valuable on the big issues... It would be reckless to forget Gandhi’s warnings. But, with good reason, Mr Guha fears that is indeed happening... More than ever, perhaps, Indians and outsiders would benefit from reacquaintance with Gandhi’s belief in compromise. Mr Guha’s magisterial account of a compassionate man provides a timely opportunity.
There’s a temptation with biographies this in-depth to skim, but Gandhi’s character and mission demands rigorous exploration and Guha weaves together the narrative as deftly as Gandhi’s homespun cloth. His telling of this David and Goliath tale is greatly enhanced by excerpts from the private papers of Gandhi’s adversaries; his keen eye for the idiosyncratic often lends a life-affirming touch.
This biography reads like the final word on its subject, though it probably won’t be. ‘Every generation of Indians needed, I thought, its own assessment or reassessment of Gandhi,’ is Guha’s justification for writing it. In fact, this masterly assessment should serve for several generations, and for non-Indians as well.