Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
by Ramachandra Guha
As October begins, the publishing world gears up for its annual deluge of enormous doorstop biographies of iconic figures from history, and readers gear up for chanting blasts of hagiography, as cinderblock-thick tomes take the usual suspects – dead US Presidents, dead actors and actresses, and dead musicians – and cut enough corners and elide enough pornography to raise those suspects to the empyrean.
And if the temptation to take this extremely commercial turn into piety is all but irresistible for beloved secular figures with size-14 feet of clay, how much stronger must it be for actual saints? There's about as much chance of the words “glib stupidity” turning up in a biography of Princess Diana as there is of the words “panting greed” turning up in a biography of Mother Teresa; especially in ideologically fraught years, lavish reverence paid to the cherished dead is much the safest bet when it comes to big-book season.
Such calculations would seem to doom Ramanchandra Guha's enormous new book Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, the second volume in his two-volume biography of Mohandas Gandi that began with 2013's Gandhi Before India (mysteriously, this present volume does not take its self-evidently obvious title, Gandhi in India). But as Gandhi Before India's many satisfied readers can attest, a big part of the reason for that book's acclaim was its obvious authorial decision to find flesh-and-blood people more interesting than saints. In its pages, we encountered a Gandhi most other biographies scarcely even mention: young, smartly dressed in starched collars, working hard as a lawyer and earnestly striving for acceptance in English society – in London and then in South Africa – that despised him and everybody else who looked like him. The bitter, piecemeal shedding of Gandhi's English national identity in favor of his Indian one formed the dramatic trajectory of that earlier book.
In Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, that transformation reaches its culmination on the personal level and sweeps outward to touch an entire country. This is the Gandhi every reader instantly recognizes, staff in hand, walking in homespun shawl and dhoti, developing the practice of nonviolence resistance to the dictates of British rule in India. This is the Gandhi who remade himself as a folk avatar in real time, in full view of the world's cameras.
The new Gandhi shared in common with Gandhi – the Gandhi of Guha's earlier volume shares in common with the Gandhi of this immense sequel – a handful of traits: a sweeping, multifaceted intelligence hidden behind a faux-folksy facade, an uncanny ability to read the popular will (regardless of whether or not he chose to adhere to it), and, not incidentally, a capacity for absolutely vast amounts of writing. Guha acknowledges that any life of his subject must be grounded in that writing, and he's accomplished the herculean task of reading and re-reading everything the man ever wrote. The reach and ease with which Guha works Gandhi's own words and thoughts into every aspect, virtually every moment, of this long and complicated story is at first startling and then just reassuringly marvelous, surely the most bristlingly readable narrative life of Gandhi readers are ever likely to see.
Throughout, there's ample respect but a bare minimum of adulation. At every stage of Gandhi's long and controversial career as what millions of his followers considered the soul of his people, Guha's account remembers his critics and gives them ample hearing – although thanks to his ready flow of quotable eloquence, Gandhi generally wins such encounters on the printed page as easily as he tended to win them in reality, as when he once faced a volley of thunderous denunciation from no less a source than Rabindranath Tagore:
Gandhi responded immediately, defending the non-cooperation movement as 'a refusal to co-operate with the English administrators on their own terms.' Indian nationalism, he insisted, 'is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive. It is health-giving, religious and therefore humanitarian. India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity. The mice which helplessly find themselves between the cat's teeth acquire no merit from their enforced sacrifice.'
Impressively, even over the course of 1,000 pages, the energy of Guha's biography never flags. The book covers in great detail all the signpost events of Gandhi's life, his interaction with the Raj and its representatives, his dealings with the Indian politicians of his time, his participation in Partition and its aftermath. Guha captures his moods, his obsessions, and his controversies, and all along he gives us the same inner drama that enlivened Gandhi Before India: a man always seeking.
When an assassin shoots him at point-blank range, killing him instantly, and word begins to spread through India and beyond, the private secretary to the Viceroy of India commented: “The man who more than anyone else had helped to supersede the Raj was receiving in death homage beyond the dreams of any Viceroy.” Guha has written an entire book – 2007's beguiling India After Gandhi, on the subject of Gandhi's long and complex legacy. The final section of Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World is titled “Gandhi in Our Time” and acts as a kind of coda to both books. In it, he credits his hero with having pursued a “largely successful” quest for truth. It's one of the book's only gestures at the piety of the book-selling season, but by this point in the story, few readers will begrudge it.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.