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Book review: The enduring legacy of Bapu

THE ASIAN AGE. | ANAND K SAHAY
Published : Jun 4, 2017, 12:34 am IST
Updated : Jun 4, 2017, 12:35 am IST

A grandson of the Mahatma, the author does not suppress his inner admiration or affection for the figure of the textured revolutionary.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
 Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

This book will endure for the ease, simplicity and a scholar’s fastidiousness with which the extremely complex personality, world view and the unique status of Mahatma Gandhi as the shrewdest politician imaginable, who was also a saint in disguise, has been dealt with.

A grandson of the Mahatma, the author does not suppress his inner admiration or affection for the figure of the textured revolutionary. India’s defeat of the Empire with Gandhi’s tools of ahimsa (which was more than simple non-violence) and satyagrah (or “clinging to truth” in the author’s rendering, with “truth” of Gandhi’s meaning itself possessing a complex and practically unattainable dimension for most of us) was no less than the turning of the old society and politics upside down, paving the path for modernity, which is not the same as the imitation of the West.

But Rajmohan Gandhi writes with carefulness, flair and objectivity. This is why this slim volume can be enjoyed by Gandhi’s subscribers and his critics if they are fair-minded. In less sure hands, a treatment of Gandhi can slip into a panegyric or a denunciation.

The writer returns to the subject of Gandhi after two decades. It is good to see that the sources consulted for this volume are quite different from his 1995 portrayal of “The Good Boatman”, though some common ground is unavoidable.  

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This book could have been arranged differently, though. The introduction and the first chapter are not strictly needed, in this reviewer’s understanding. What other great personalities of our day have had to say about Gandhi or how he influenced them does not quite seem to go with the title “Why Gandhi Still Matters”. Indeed, the title itself could have eschewed the word “Still”.

The last two chapters with their focus on the last days of Gandhi and on Hind Swaraj, which was written in 1909 and sums up his core philosophy, could have been an excellent opener, with minor writing adjustments. “On Caste and Ambedkar”, dealing with an extremely sensitive issue, is a delicately written chapter. “The Lessons of Partition” offers insightful interpretations and deserves to sit alongside the assessments of the most thorough historians of the national movement.

We live in an era in this country when bounders are called “sant” by a grasping political class and unthinking journalists, but Gandhi, the devout Hindu and ardent seeker of truth, did not visit temples or keep idols for prayer, although he fought for opening the temple doors to the “untouchable”.

He looked up to the great Hindu texts, but followed them only in the light of his own reason and his morals. “Religious verses cannot be above reason and morality”, insisted Gandhi.

This facet, not realised by many, will give heart to many.

Also, we learn from this book — and this will surprise most — that while Gandhi often recalled a moral from the Ramayana, “he did not see that text as history”. Essentially, for Gandhi, Rama was a conception (“God Himself”) — a God who was “Unborn and Uncreated”, in his own words.

A charming aspect of this work is that parts of it show Gandhi on the go, in flesh and blood, in his conversations with people, in the way he dealt with situations, sometimes even his inner feelings — of both certainty and helplessness, but without missing out on resoluteness.

The upshot of Gandhi’s political, theoretical, strategic and practical encounters with Muh-ammad Ali Jinnah and B.R. Ambedkar — and the lessons that may be taken — will fill a volume, and can be a worthwhile aspiration for history scholars.

An analysis is made here, but a dedicated chapter may have helped shed considerable light on devilishly difficult questions that are posed today.

In the same manner, the democracy, the modernity, the struggle against Empire by making “the individual” the centre of Gandhi’s thoughts and democratic ideal, could have been placed in contradistinction with Marxian socialism/communism, fascism and authoritarianism which is abroad in our own times, to reap a rich theoretical harvest to justify the title of the book, even in the amended form proposed in this review.

The young and the innocent in our times, all over the world, are being ineluctably led into alleyways of extreme political violence — of thought and deed — by pied pipers of every hue and in every clime, including our own. That alone makes the Mahatma — the man who refused to hate, and who succeeded in getting rid of fear and thoughts of violence — relevant today.

But his story will be easier to grasp if placed alongside the narratives of violence and death woven with the glistening thread spun by charlatans.

Tags: mahatma gandhi, book review, satyagraha