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The best books on Gandhi

recommended by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
by Ramachandra Guha


Gandhi's peaceful resistance to British rule changed India and inspired freedom movements around the globe. But as well as being an inspiring leader, Gandhi was also a human being. Ramachandra Guha, author of a new two-part biography of Gandhi, introduces us to books that give a fuller picture of the man who came to be known as 'Mahatma' Gandhi.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
by Ramachandra Guha

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We’re talking about books to read about Gandhi, but it’s hard to do that without mentioning your own biography. There’s the volume that covers Gandhi’s years in South Africa, Gandhi Before India, and then there’s another 900+ page volume, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, covering the period from 1914 until his death in 1948. Especially for younger people who might not be as familiar with Gandhi, can you tell us why he’s so important and why we need to know about him?

We need to know about him for many reasons. One is that he is regarded as the father of the Indian nation, and India is the world’s largest democracy and its second most populous country. He is the major national figure in India, comparable to, say, Lincoln and Jefferson in the United States, De Gaulle in France, Churchill in the UK, Mao in China, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and so on. He was the preeminent nationalist leader of one of the world’s most important and largest countries.

But he was much more than merely a political leader. He was also a moral philosopher who gave the world a particular technique for combating injustice, namely nonviolent protest. He called this technique ‘satyagraha’, or ‘truth force’, and it has been followed and adopted in many countries across the world since his death, including in the United States.

Gandhi was also a very interesting thinker on matters of religion. He lived, and indeed died, for harmony between India’s two major religious communities, Hindus and Muslims. At a time when the world is riven with discord and disharmony between faith communities, I think Gandhi is relevant.

He lived a long life, almost 80 years, during which time he studied and worked in three countries, three continents—in the United Kingdom and South Africa as well as India. He wrote a great deal: his collected works run to 90 volumes. His autobiography was translated into more than 40 languages. An early political text he wrote, called Hind Swaraj, is still taught in universities around the world. So he was a thinker and writer as well as being an activist, which is not that common.

And he was also controversial. There were people who debated with him in India and outside it. There were people who took issue with his political views, his views on religion, his views on social reform.

He was a person who touched many aspects of social and political life in the 20th century. The issues he was grappling with are still alive with us today, not just in India, but across the world. That’s why he is so interesting and important. I wanted to write about him all my life.

I thought that was funny in your book: you write that you have been stalked by his shadow your whole life. Even when you were writing a social history of cricket, he came up—even though Gandhi hated cricket.

I’d say it was more that he was magisterially indifferent to cricket, which is in some ways worse than hating something. He was profoundly indifferent to films, cricket, even music. He was not someone who had a keenly developed aesthetic side.

As I say in the book, whatever I wrote about, he was there—somewhere in the background and sometimes in the foreground. Finally, I thought, ‘Let me settle my accounts with him.’ I was also fortunate that a very large tranche of archival papers connected with his life had recently opened up, which perhaps allowed me to give more nuance and detail than previous scholars had done.

I first heard about Gandhi when I was quite young and the film about him, directed by Richard Attenborough, came out. If you don’t know anything about Gandhi, is that a good place to start, in your view? 

I approve in a qualified sense. It’s a well-told story. Some of the acting is very good. Ben Kingsley in the title role, in particular, is absolutely stunning. It gives the contours of Gandhi’s political life and his struggle against the British quite accurately. It also talks about his family life and his problems with his wife.

But of course it’s a feature film, so it has to iron out all the complexities. For example, one of Gandhi’s greatest and most long-standing antagonists was a remarkable leader called B R Ambedkar, who came from an Untouchable background. He’s completely missing in the film, because if you bring him in, the story is too complicated to be told in a cute, Hollywood-y, good guy/bad guy kind of way.

“Attenborough’s Gandhi a good place to start because it’s a well-told story, the acting is good, and the cinematography is splendid—but it’s a very neat line”

Instead, the film brings in the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as the stock villain, almost inevitably, because Jinnah divided India into two countries and based his politics on religion. It was narrow and divisive, and Gandhi, who thought Hindus and Muslims could live together, opposed it. So it’s understandable why Jinnah features, but Ambedkar was equally important in Gandhi’s life. The man with whom he battled as long and as spiritedly is missing.

So yes, Attenborough’s Gandhi a good place to start because it’s a well-told story, the acting is good, and the cinematography is splendid—but it’s a very neat line. The nuances, the shades and the ambiguities are missing.

Your biography of Gandhi obviously gives a much more comprehensive picture of him, but it’s also trying to give a balanced picture, I got the sense. You’re an admirer of Gandhi, but you’re also trying very hard to give the other side, is that right?

Very much so, because the job of a scholar, and a biographer in particular, is to suppress nothing. Whatever you find that is of interest or importance must be included, even if it makes you uncomfortable or makes your story less compelling or newsworthy.

Of course, I do largely admire Gandhi—I wouldn’t want to spend so many years of my life working on someone I was ambivalent about—but I can see that in his debates with the aforementioned Ambedkar he was not always right. He could be patronizing towards this younger, radical opponent of his.

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I can also see the ways in which he manipulated control over the Congress Party. He was a consummate politician, and did not want his main political vehicle to slip out of his grasp. He was a political manager, in that sense. He was also not a very good husband and an absolutely disastrous father. There’s a lot of moving correspondence between him and his first son, with whom he had a particularly problematic relationship. All my sympathies are with the son, and I think all the readers’ sympathies will be too.

When it came to his personal life, his political life, and his ideological views, there were times when I was profoundly out of sympathy with Gandhi and profoundly in sympathy with those who argued with him. All this also had to be part of the story.

It’s a book that suppresses nothing and that shirks nothing. There will be some people who will read this book and come out admiring Gandhi much more, and there will be others who will have a sense of disquiet and maybe even anguish at the new things they have found out about Gandhi.

Let’s go through the five books you’ve chosen. They’re not ranked in any particular order, but let’s start with the first one on your list, which is My Days with Gandhi, by his secretary and companion Nirmal Kumar Bose. This book deals with the last phase of his life. Could you tell me about it, and explain why it’s on your list of important books to read about Gandhi?

I put this book by Nirmal Kumar Bose on my list because I wanted a firsthand account of Gandhi. Bose was a considerable scholar. He wrote books, edited a scholarly journal and taught at universities. Although he’s not that well-known outside India, he was among the country’s most influential anthropologists, writing on caste and India’s tribal regions.

He was interested in Gandhi too. He joined the freedom movement in the 1930s, went to jail, and prepared an anthology of Gandhi’s writings. Then, in the winter of 1946–7, Gandhi was in the field in Bengal trying to bring about peace. This was a time when religious rioting was particularly savage in eastern Bengal and Gandhi needed an interpreter. Bose was a Bengali speaker and Gandhi knew of him and his writings. So Bose went with him.

This was a time which, at one level, saw Gandhi at his most heroic. Here is a 77-year-old man walking through the villages of eastern Bengal. Communication is awful; there’s malaria and dysentery and all kinds of other problems. He’s trying to bring Hindus and Muslims together, undertaking these heroic experiments to promote peace.

At the same time, he’s also experimenting with himself, because he’s obsessed with his own celibacy. He wants to test that his mind is absolutely pure by sleeping naked with a disciple of his, a young woman who also happened to be distantly related to him. And he was doing this in the open, because he never did anything behind curtains.

As an anthropologist and as a biographer, Nirmal Kumar Bose saw this as interesting, but as a disciple, he was deeply upset by it and he left Gandhi. He wrote some letters, which Gandhi replied to.

So there is this whole arc of Nirmal Kumar Bose’s connection with Gandhi. He’s with him during this period in Gandhi’s life where he is putting his life on the line, but also indulging in rather bizarre, peculiar and inexplicable experiments on himself. You can see this complicates the story far more than Attenborough’s film does.

Bose is puzzled and disappointed by Gandhi’s experiment but, in the end, still remains an admirer. I think the book is useful in that it provides a firsthand account of Gandhi by someone who is a scholar and a writer. Bose is not just a starry-eyed naïve disciple, but someone who is himself a thinker and has an analytical mind. He wants to probe deeply into his subject’s moods and anxieties.

It’s also a picture of Gandhi at a point in his life when he’s a bit isolated and disillusioned because the country is going in the direction of Partition, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s also very important. Gandhi struggled his whole life to keep a united India. From his time in South Africa onwards, he promoted Hindu-Muslim harmony. He was a Hindu himself, a deep believer and also deeply immersed in Hindu traditions. But in South Africa, his closest associates were Muslims.

In India, he tried to bring about a compact between these two large and sometimes disputatious communities. Ultimately, he failed—because Partition happened and Hindus and Muslims turned on each other. It was an effort of will, at his age, to compose himself, get himself back on track and then undertake this foot march through eastern Bengal.

All the trauma of his life, and particularly this sense of failure he has, is not unconnected to the experiment in celibacy. Gandhi thought that because he was not absolutely pure in his own mind, and had not completely tamed his own sexual urges, he was in some ways responsible for the fact that society was turning on itself. It was an article of faith, maybe even an egoistic delusion that Gandhi had, that social peace depended on his inner purity.

There is all this pathos in Gandhi’s last months, but Bose, of course, is not a novelist. He is an anthropologist. His writing is factual and dispassionate. If a playwright were to deal with those last months, they would write something very different and more dramatic, more soaked in emotions. Some people may feel Bose’s book is rather clinical and scholarly, but it’s an actual firsthand account and that’s its value.

Let’s turn to the next book you’ve chosen, which is A Week with Gandhi by Louis Fischer. He was an American journalist who visited Gandhi at his ashram in 1942. Tell me more.

Louis Fischer wrote more than one book on Gandhi. He also wrote a biography of Gandhi called The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, which was published after Gandhi’s death. That book was the basis for Attenborough’s film. I didn’t want that book; I wanted something else by Fischer. This book is set in 1942, again, a time of great political turmoil and anxiety. The Second World War was on.

Let’s go back to give some context. In 1937 the national movement had been going on for a long time and several significant concessions were granted by the British. There was a partial devolution of powers to Indians and there were Congress governments in seven out of nine provinces. If the Second World War hadn’t happened, India would probably have become independent in the same way Canada or New Zealand or South Africa did. India would have slowly shed British rule and may have still owed some kind of symbolic allegiance to the Crown, in the way Australia or Canada do.

The war queered the pitch completely, however, because the British had their backs to the wall. This is a time—1939, 1940, 1941—when the Americans hadn’t yet entered the war, and the British were fighting alone. Even the Soviets didn’t enter until 1941. At that point, the British couldn’t care at all about Indian independence; all they wanted was to save their own skin and defeat Hitler.

Gandhi and the Congress were confronted with a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, for all his political differences with Imperial rule, Gandhi had enormous personal sympathy with the British people. He had many British friends; he had studied in London, and he loved London to distraction. When the Luftwaffe bombed London, he actually wept at the thought of Westminster Abbey coming under German bombs.

Gandhi was willing to abandon his doctrinal commitment to non-violence and to tell the British ‘Hitler is evil, he must be defeated, we will help you defeat him.’ ‘We’ here means the Congress party, India’s main political vehicle, led by Gandhi and Nehru. They said to the British, ‘We will work with you, but you must assure us that you will grant us independence once the war is over.’ This was, in my view, a very reasonable condition—because if the British were fighting for freedom, then surely that meant freedom for Indians, too?

This was rejected by the then prime minister, Winston Churchill, who was a diehard imperialist—and whose viceroy in India, Linlithgow, was as reactionary as Churchill was.

So here is Gandhi in India wondering, ‘What do I do? I want to help the British, but I want my people to be free.’ The Americans are sympathetic to his predicament. Fischer goes to India in 1942, at a time when Gandhi is telling the British, ‘If you don’t assure us freedom, I will launch another countrywide protest movement against your rule.’ This was to become the Quit India Movement of August 1942; Fischer visits just before that.

He goes to Gandhi’s ashram in central India. Unlike Nirmal Kumar Bose, Fischer is a journalist and a keen observer. He deals less in analysis and more in description. So there’s a very rich and informative account of the ashram, of Gandhi’s rural settlement, what the daily life was like, what the food was like. The food was awful. After a week of eating squash and boiled vegetables Fischer was waiting to go back to Bombay and have a good meal at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Fischer describes Gandhi’s entourage, the men and women around him, his wife, his disciples and then he talks to Gandhi. It’s an unusually frank and open conversation. As Fischer says later on in the book, one of the joys of talking to Gandhi is that it’s not pre-scripted. When you talk to other politicians, he says, it’s like turning on a phonogram. You hears these stock metaphors, and a certain kind of rhetoric: it’s a practised, programmed and rehearsed speech. But when you talk to Gandhi, it’s a conversation. You’re opening up new lines of thought, and Gandhi himself is so open and transparent and reacting so spontaneously that he sometimes says things that he’s surprised at himself.

The book conveys the essential humanity of Gandhi and his down-to-earth character. He lived in this simple village community, with bad food and no modern conveniences at all.

I really like this book because it’s Gandhi from close up. I wanted Bose and Fischer on my list: one an Indian, the other American, one a scholar, the other a journalist, meeting Gandhi at different points in his life: 1942 for Fischer, 1946/47 for Bose. Both were critical periods in the life of Gandhi and in the history of the world. I wanted to juxtapose an Indian firsthand account of Gandhi’s life with a non-Indian, first-hand account of Gandhi’s life.

The other three books I’ve chosen are not first-hand accounts. They are more based on documentation and scholarship.

One last thing about Fischer which may be of interest to your readers with a more general interest in the history of 20th century politics: Fischer began as a Communist. He spent many years in Russia and married a Russian woman. He spoke fluent Russian, and like several American journalists of his time was rather credulous about the Russian Revolution. But then Stalin’s brutality opened his eyes and he came to Gandhi on the rebound, as it were.

Fischer was one of the contributors to the volume called The God That Failed, along with Arthur Koestler and other writers who were disenchanted by Communism.

So Fischer is a person with wide international experience. He’s lived in Russia, he’s travelled through Europe and then he discovers Gandhi in India. So from that point of view, I think his book is particularly useful.

One thing that comes up in this book quite a bit is Gandhi’s emphasis on spinning. He’s always trying to get people to do more spinning. Could you explain what that’s all about?

There are three major aspects to this. One is that spinning is a way of breaking down the boundaries between mental labour and manual labour and dissolving caste distinctions. In the Indian caste system, the upper caste Brahmins read books and are temple priests, and the Kshatriyas own land and give orders and fight wars. Then you have the Vaishyas, who are businessmen. It’s only the Shudras and the Untouchables, the fourth and fifth strata, who do manual labour. Manual labour is despised in the Indian caste system, and Gandhi wanted to say that everyone should work with their hands.

The second aspect is that Gandhi believed in economic self-reliance. A major factor in India’s underdevelopment was that its indigenous industries had been destroyed under British colonial rule. We were importing cloth from England, particularly Manchester. So this was a way of saying, ‘We will spin our own cloth and we’ll do it ourselves using decentralized methods. Each of us will spin something.’

The third aspect of it is that he is cultivating a spirit of solidarity among his fellow freedom fighters, and spinning is a way of doing that constructively and non-violently. How do fascists inculcate solidarity among the community? By marching up and down to show their enemies how menacing they can be. Consider spinning the Gandhian alternative to a fascist marchpast.

This is how you should read Gandhi’s interest in—you could even say obsession with—spinning. It was at once a program of social equality, of breaking down caste distinctions, of economic self-renewal and of nationalist unity: everyone will do the same thing.

But as a program for economic renewal—I mean, you’ve also written a very highly regarded book about India after Gandhi—don’t you think that Gandhi was sending the country in the wrong direction economically?

Well, it was rejected by his own closest disciple and anointed heir, Jawaharlal Nehru. When India became independent, Nehru launched the country firmly on the path to economic modernization, which included industrialization.

But it wasn’t wholly rejected because of another of Gandhi’s followers (who has a cameo role in my book), a remarkable woman called Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. She was the one who persuaded Gandhi that women must join the Salt March too. And after Gandhi died, while Nehru took the state in the direction of planned economic industrial development, Kamaladevi helped revive India’s craft traditions. Some of our textile and handwoven crafts are owed to Gandhi’s emphasis on spinning and to Kamaladevi, his preeminent female disciple. She really was a quite remarkable person who deserves a good biography of her own.

After Gandhi’s death, she was in a sense the founder of India’s civil society movement—how to organize people in cooperatives, how to nurture and revive dying traditions of crafts. Some of that continues. I would say that even economically it was not a complete failure, though you’re right that it was largely rejected after independence because India took the route of steel plants, highways, factories and so on.

Let’s go on to the third book on your list, which is by Dennis Dalton.

Dennis Dalton is a retired American professor who is now in his eighties. I’ve never met him, but I have admired his work for a very, very long time. He did a PhD in England in the 1960s and later on taught at Columbia. In the 1970s and 1980s he wrote a series of pioneering articles on Gandhi, which greatly impressed me when I read them. Those articles then became the basis of this book, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action, the third of the five that I’ve recommended.

I want to say a little bit about the hallmarks of Dalton’s work and why it’s particularly important. The first thing is that it is absolutely grounded in primary research. Unlike other Gandhi scholars, Dalton does not restrict himself to the collected works. There are 90 volumes of Gandhi’s own writings and it’s very easy to write a book—or indeed many books—just based on analyzing and re-analyzing what Gandhi said himself. Dalton, while he knows Gandhi’s collected writings very well, also looks at contemporary newspapers and what they were saying about Gandhi.

He also looks at what Gandhi’s political rivals and adversaries were writing. In his book, he has a very interesting account of the Indian revolutionaries who disparaged nonviolence and thought armed struggle would be more effective and quicker in getting the British out. They saw nonviolence as weak, womanly and so on—a kind of macho attack on Gandhi’s nonviolence. He talks about Ambedkar, the great low caste revolutionary who disagreed with Gandhi. The book also has two very good set pieces: a fine account of the Salt March and as well as of Gandhi’s great fast of September 1947, which brought peace to Calcutta.

“Whether Gandhi or Marx or Hobbes or Mill, any great political thinker is living his or her life day to day and adapting and changing his or her views”

The other interesting thing about Dalton’s work—and this is very, very important—is that he looks at the evolution of Gandhi’s thought. Because a life is lived day to day. Whether Gandhi or Marx or Hobbes or Mill, any great political thinker is living his or her life day to day and adapting and changing his or her views. Those who don’t look at the evolution of a life, who don’t have a historical or chronological or developmental understanding of a life, are forced to cherry-pick. They want consistencies that don’t exist.

Dalton shows the evolution of Gandhi’s views. For example, he shows that Gandhi had very conservative views about caste and race, but how over time he shed his prejudices and arrived at a more capacious, universalistic understanding of humanity. It’s a good corrective to those ideologues who want to make a certain case and selectively quote Gandhi from that earlier period in his life.

So I think as an account of the development of Gandhi’s political philosophy and as an analysis of Gandhi’s Indian critics—who had serious, profound and sometimes telling political disagreements with Gandhi—Dalton’s book is particularly valuable.

He’s also drawing attention to the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. To quote from the book, “nonviolent power in action defined his career: the creative ways that he used it excite the world today.” There’s the issue of the continuing relevance of Gandhi’s methods.

Yes, and to elaborate on that point, the last chapter of Dalton’s book, before the conclusion, is called “Mohandas, Malcolm, and Martin.” It talks about Gandhi’s legacy in twentieth-century America and what Malcolm X did not take from Gandhi and what Martin Luther King did take from Gandhi. There’s an analysis of the ways in which you can trace the influence of Gandhi’s legacy on Martin Luther King and race relations in America. The book came out in the early 1990s, so it was a little early to assess Gandhi’s impact on Eastern Europe, but he did also have an impact there. The leaders of Solidarity, particularly thinkers like Adam Michnik, the great Polish writer, acknowledged their debt to Gandhi.

Dalton is telling you how particularly Gandhi’s technique of shaming the oppressor through nonviolent civil disobedience can still be relevant.

Do you think that nonviolence worked particularly well against the British? Gandhi knew the British Empire very well, as is very clear from reading your book: he only returned to India when he was already 45 years old. So he knew a lot about the way the British thought and the way the British Empire worked. Do you think his knowledge of who he was fighting against to get India free helped him realize that that technique would work—when maybe it wouldn’t under all circumstances?

I think you’re right on the first count, that nonviolence could work against the British whereas it may not have worked against a more brutal oppressor. There’s a nice story—possibly apocryphal, but worth telling nonetheless—of Ho Chi Minh coming to India in the 1950s and telling a gathering in New Delhi that if Mahatma Gandhi had been fighting the French, he would have given up nonviolence within a week.

Likewise, against either the Dutch (who were really brutal in Indonesia) or Hitler, it would be absurd to try it. In my book I have an account of Gandhi advocating nonviolence for resisting Hitler and the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taking issue with him–and rightly so. So yes, the British were embarrassed in ways in which maybe a more insensitive or callous ruler might not have been.

It’s also the case that one powerful segment of British opinion, represented by the Labour party, was always for Indian independence. From about 1905–6, well before Gandhi returned to India, Keir Hardie committed the Labour party to independence. Then, as the Labour party grew in influence within Great Britain through the 1920s and 1930s, there was an influential constituency of politicians and intellectuals supporting the Indian freedom movement. There were writers like George Orwell, Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman, Fenner Brockway and Vera Brittain (the remarkable pacifist who was a friend of Gandhi’s) writing in the British press about the legitimacy of the Indian demand for independence. It’s not clear whether Ho Chi Minh had similar people lobbying for him in France. So it is true that nonviolence had a better chance against the British as compared to the Dutch in Indonesia or the French in Vietnam.

“There is a moral core to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. He is trying to shame the oppressor in preference to obliterating the oppressor out of existence.”

Having said all that, it wasn’t simply tactical. There is a moral core to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. He is trying to shame the oppressor in preference to obliterating the oppressor out of existence. Gandhi is saying, If I were to shoot the colonial official who is oppressing me, it means I am 100 per cent right and he is 100 per cent wrong. Otherwise how am I justified in taking his life?

Let me harass him, pressurize him, put him to some trouble, squat outside his office, not allow people to go into his office and then let’s see what he says. Nonviolence also rests on a moral understanding of interpersonal relations, which says, ‘Look, the guy who is oppressing me also has some humanity in him. Let me stoke that. Let me try this and that and then the guy can come around and we can reach a kind of mutual respect and understanding.’ So it is not simply tactical and instrumental and pragmatic: there is also a moral core to nonviolent resistance, which I think one must never forget.

Tying in with that, shall we talk about Gandhi’s religion next? This is a book called Gandhi’s Religion: A Homespun Shawl, written by a Belgian Jesuit, J T F Jordens. His point is that it’s impossible to understand Gandhi without his religion.

First, a small factual correction: the author, J T F Jordens, is more accurately described as a lapsed Belgian Jesuit. He started as a Jesuit, came to India, joined a church and then left the church. He got interested in Gandhi, became a scholar and ended up a professor in Australia.

This is partly accidental, but if you look at the three books by foreigners on my list, one is by an American who lived in Russia, which is Fischer. The second is by an American who studied in England, which is Dalton. The third is by a Belgian who ended up teaching in Australia. I wanted people with a non-parochial, non-xenophobic understanding of the world. They’re all very unusual people who provided very interesting perspectives on Gandhi and have written, in my view, three first-rate books.

Coming to Jordens and Gandhi’s Religion: Gandhi was a person of faith, but he had a highly idiosyncratic, individual, eccentric attitude to faith. He called himself a Sanatanist Hindu—which means a devout or orthodox Hindu—but didn’t go into temples. He did once enter a famous temple in south India, when they admitted Untouchables for the first time. Other than that, he was a Hindu who never entered temples. He was a Hindu, but he radically challenged some of the prejudices of the Hindu tradition, particularly the practice of untouchability. He was a Hindu whose closest friend was an English Christian priest, CF Andrews. He was a Hindu whose political program was that Hindus should not oppress Muslims and Muslims must have equal rights in an independent India.

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Gandhi’s views on religion are very distinct. You’re talking about a person who is growing up in the late 19th century, a time when there is a burst of rationalistic atheism, particularly following the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Hardy writes his poem God’s Funeral because intellectuals and scientists have turned their back on God.

But it’s also a time of aggressive proselytization, with Christian missionaries going to India, Muslim missionaries working in Africa and so on and so forth.

Now, too, we live in a time of intellectuals disparaging religion, with an arrogant atheism on one side and religious fundamentalism on the other. Gandhi gives us a way out of this false choice. Gandhi tells us that you can be religious, that there is a wonder and mystery to life which cold-blooded rationality and science can’t completely explain.

But, at the same time, there is no one true path to God. Gandhi says, Accept your fate. You’re born a Hindu, fine. Your parents, your grandparents were Hindus for many generations. But think about what you can learn from other faiths. Cultivate friendships with Christians and Muslims and Jews and Parsis. If you see your faith in the mirror of another, you may find out its imperfections. It’s a very interesting, heterodox approach to religion.

But religion was central to Gandhi’s life. I don’t talk about his in my biography, but when I was very young, in my early 20s, I went through a phase where I wanted to secularize Gandhi. I was brought up an atheist. My father and grandfather were scientists and I’d never went to temples. When I got interested in Gandhi, I thought, This religious business is all a distraction. What is really relevant about Gandhi, is equal rights for the low castes, equality for women, nonviolence, democracy and economic self-reliance. Let me try and have Gandhi without faith.

But ultimately I realized that was futile and wouldn’t give me a ready window into understanding Gandhi, because Gandhi was a person of faith. He’s someone to whom religion matters a great deal, but though he calls himself a Hindu he’s a rebel against orthodoxy. There’s a wonderful passage where a Christian disciple of his was thrown out by the church (Verrier Elvin, about whom I wrote a book many years ago). He writes to Gandhi saying that his bishop has excommunicated him. Gandhi writes back saying that it doesn’t matter, that his altar is the sky, and his pulpit the ground beneath him. You can still communicate with Jesus without being in a church. In this, Gandhi is influenced of course by Tolstoy and his writing, Tolstoy’s sense, as he puts it, that the kingdom of God is within you.

I think Jordens’s book is the most scrupulous, fair-minded and persuasive account of why faith is so central to Gandhi and what makes Gandhi’s faith so distinctive. That is why it is on my list.

And ultimately we should point out that Gandhi was killed by a Hindu for being too good to Muslims.


And that focus of Gandhi’s on celibacy, does that come from religion?

Celibacy, or the struggle to conquer your sexual desires, is prevalent in several religious traditions: Catholicism, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, and it’s totally absent in some other religious traditions: Islam, Protestant Christianity and Judaism. The idea that you must eschew sexual pleasures and that would bring you closer to God, is part of Buddhism and Catholicism and Hinduism, but it’s totally antithetical or alien to Islam, Judaism and the modern world.

Let me tell you a story. Some years ago an American scholar called Joseph Lelyveld wrote a book suggesting Gandhi was gay. Gandhi had a close Jewish friend called Hermann Kallenbach, with whom he lived in South Africa. Both were followers of Tolstoy and both wanted to be celibate. Lelyveld couldn’t understand two people living together wishing to be celibate so he concluded they were gay. His clinching piece of evidence was a letter that Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach when Gandhi was in London, temporarily separated from his friend and housemate. He wrote to Kallenbach saying, There is a bottle of Vaseline on my mantelpiece and it reminds me of you. The American scholar jumped to a very quick conclusion, but the bottle of Vaseline was actually there because both Gandhi and Kallenbach had taken a Tolstoyan vow not to wear shoes. They walked barefoot or in slippers and in London he was getting corns under his feet.

A modern man like Joseph Lelyveld, a 21st-century writer living in New York, attending the gay pride parades every year, can’t understand men wanting to be celibate voluntarily, rather than because it’s imposed on them. But this was not, as is the case in many countries around the world, an eight-year-old child being shipped off to a seminary and told to become a priest. Kallenbach was a successful architect, Gandhi was a successful lawyer. They were both inspired by Tolstoy, the successful novelist, to give up everything and live the simple life. I had a great deal of fun in my first volume, Gandhi Before India, writing a two-page footnote addressing Joseph Lelyveld’s misunderstanding.

But the point is that celibacy is there in Hinduism and also in Jainism, an allied religion to which Gandhi was pretty close, because as a native Gujarati he had many close Jain friends. Jain monks are absolutely committed to this kind of sexual abstinence. So it was a core part of his religious beliefs. It comes from his faith and it is something which modern men and women just can’t comprehend.

But despite Gandhi’s religious openmindedness, he wouldn’t let his son marry a Muslim.

Yes, but that was for pragmatic political reasons. He was working in a very conservative society, where he was getting Hindus and Muslims together on a political platform for the first time. If there had been intermarriage it would have derailed the political movement, because the Islamic preachers would have accused his son of capturing a Muslim girl and so on. This was in the 1920s, so a hundred years ago. I’m sure today he would have no objection.

That leads us nicely to your last book. Gandhi was a man who always put the political and the public before his private life. And, as you said earlier, the result is that he treated his family pretty badly. The last book on your list is a life of his son Harilal. It’s called Harilal Gandhi: A Life. Some quotes from his son that appear in the book: “No attention was paid to us” and  “You have spoken to us not in love, but always in anger.” It’s very sad, isn’t it? Tell me about his son and this book.

This was a book written in Gujarati by a scholar called Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal and translated into English by one of the preeminent Indian Gandhian scholars of the day, Tridip Suhrud, who was, for many years, the curator of Gandhi’s own personal archive in Ahmedabad. Suhrud has provided a very detailed introduction and notes, so it’s a very good edition of this biography.

To, again, put things in context, Gandhi married very young. He was married in his teens and he had his first child, Harilal, in 1888 when he was not even 20. Shortly after his Harilal is born, Gandhi goes to London to get a law degree. So he’s absent for the first two years of his son’s life. Then he comes back and spends a year and a bit in India and then goes off again, to South Africa, to make a living and leaves his wife and children behind. Then, after some years, his wife and children join him in South Africa. But then Harilal, the eldest son, is sent back to India, to matriculate. So for many of the formative years of Harilal growing up, his father is absent.

Also, because Gandhi has his son so early, by the time Harilal comes to maturity and is thinking about his own career and his own future, Gandhi is himself only in his thirties. Gandhi is having his midlife crisis. He is abandoning his career as a prosperous lawyer to become a full-time social activist. At the same time, Harilal is having his adolescent crisis.

Now, I don’t want to bring the biographer into it, but if I was to look at myself, like many people, I also had a midlife crisis. When I was 36 or 37 I gave up a university job and became a freelance writer. I said to hell with institutions and tutorials—I just want to be on my own. When that happened, my son was four years old, because I’d had him in my early 30s. In Gandhi’s case, unfortunately, his own midlife crisis and change of career coincided with his son’s adolescent crisis. And this, partly, was responsible for the clash. Gandhi is telling his son, Go to jail. Follow me, become a social worker, give up everything for the community like I have done. And the son is saying, Hey, but when you were my age you went to London to become a lawyer. Why can’t I go to London and become a lawyer too?

And Gandhi is profoundly unsympathetic to his son’s hopes, his desires. It’s also the case that the son has a love marriage, which Gandhi doesn’t really approve of. The son is devoted to his wife but the wife dies leaving him bereft of his emotional anchor.

Gandhi turns increasingly angry, judgmental and frustrated at his son not doing what he wants him to do. And Harilal is broken by this. At one level he resents his father’s overbearing, authoritarian manner and at another level he craves his father’s attention. So Harilal goes to jail several times in South Africa and several times in India too because he wants his father to know that he’s as much of a patriot as anybody else.

The son tries several times to matriculate, but fails. His wife dies. Then he tries several times to become a businessman, but all his business ventures fail. Then he becomes an alcoholic, then he becomes a lapsed alcoholic, then he goes back to the bottle again. Then, because he’s so angry with his father, he converts to Islam merely to spite Gandhi. This leads to a very anguished letter by his mother, Kasturba Gandhi. She’s very rarely in the public domain but is so angry at her son’s spiteful act, that she writes in the press saying, Why are you doing this just to shame your father?

So it’s a very tragic and complicated relationship and of course it’s not unusual. Many driven, successful people are not very good husbands or fathers. Modern history is replete with such examples. But in Gandhi’s case, because we have this book by Dalal, we can read all their letters. We can see the exchanges between father and son, the pervasive lack of comprehension and the progressive anger and exasperation at Gandhi’s end and the anger and resentment at the son’s end. It all comes out very vividly in this account.

Again, it’s a factual account. It’s written by a scholar who wants to tell you the truth in an unadorned, factual, dispassionate way. But I think it’s very effective for not being overwritten or overblown or excessively hyperbolic or judgmental.

And Harilal doesn’t go to Gandhi’s funeral right? He was so estranged from his father that he didn’t go?

He wanted to go to the funeral, actually. There’s one version that the news came too late, and that he went to Delhi. But it’s a very sad story. We talked earlier about the Attenborough movie. There is also a very nice film based on this book called Gandhi, My Father. It’s a feature film, made in English, by the Indian director Feroz Abbas Khan. It started as a play. So it was a play and then a film on this very complicated, tormented relationship between the father of the nation and his own son. I would urge readers to watch the film because it’s very good.

One last question: you didn’t include Gandhi’s autobiography on this list of books. Is that because you wanted them to be books about him rather than by him or was there a more fundamental reason?

Gandhi’s autobiography is indispensable, but it’s so well known. It’s available in hundreds of editions, and in dozens of languages. Every major publisher has published it and you can get it anywhere. I wanted readers of Five Books to get some fresher, more vivid, less-known perspectives on Gandhi.

But certainly, they should read the autobiography too. It’s now available in a new annotated edition by the scholar I mentioned, Tridip Suhrud. It’s a first rate edition brought out by Yale University Press.

And the autobiography is very readable, is that right?

Yes, Gandhi was a master of English and Gujarati prose. He transformed Gujarati writing. He wrote beautiful, economical, clear prose with no affectation and no pomposity. He was a marvellous writer.

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In the course of my research for my first volume about Gandhi, one of my most pleasurable discoveries was an obscure book published in the 1960s that had compiled Gandhi’s school marksheets. Someone found out that when Gandhi  matriculated from school, he got 44% in English and more or less the same in Gujarati. So I always use this example when I speak at colleges in India: here is a master of Gujarati and English who got a mere 44% in his examinations.

The autobiography was written in Gujarati but then translated by Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai, who was quite a remarkable man himself. But since the autobiography is so well known and so easily and widely available, I thought I should recommend some other books.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

September 3, 2019

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include a pioneering environmental history, The Unquiet Woods (University of California Press, 1989), and an award-winning social history of cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field (Picador, 2002), which was chosen by The Guardian as one of the ten best books on cricket ever written. India after Gandhi (Macmillan/Ecco Press, 2007; revised edition, 2017) was chosen as a book of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and as a book of the decade in the the Times of London and The Hindu.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is a two volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi. The first volume, Gandhi Before India (Knopf, 2014), was chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The second volume, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (Knopf, 2018), was chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times and The Economist.

Ramachandra Guha’s awards include the Leopold-Hidy Prize of the American Society of Environmental History, the Daily Telegraph/Cricket Society prize, the Malcolm Adideshiah Award for excellence in social science research, the Ramnath Goenka Prize for excellence in journalism, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Fukuoka Prize for contributions to Asian studies.

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include a pioneering environmental history, The Unquiet Woods (University of California Press, 1989), and an award-winning social history of cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field (Picador, 2002), which was chosen by The Guardian as one of the ten best books on cricket ever written. India after Gandhi (Macmillan/Ecco Press, 2007; revised edition, 2017) was chosen as a book of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and as a book of the decade in the the Times of London and The Hindu.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is a two volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi. The first volume, Gandhi Before India (Knopf, 2014), was chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The second volume, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (Knopf, 2018), was chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times and The Economist.

Ramachandra Guha’s awards include the Leopold-Hidy Prize of the American Society of Environmental History, the Daily Telegraph/Cricket Society prize, the Malcolm Adideshiah Award for excellence in social science research, the Ramnath Goenka Prize for excellence in journalism, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Fukuoka Prize for contributions to Asian studies.