January 10, 2011
In this rigorous biography of India's beloved political and spiritual leader, Lelyveld (Move Your Shadow) offers an unexpected perspective on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), one that focuses more on his failures and vexations than triumphs. Gandhi dreamed of Hindu-Muslim solidarity in a united, autonomous India (a hope dashed with the 1947 partition that split off Pakistan); acceptance of lower castes by upper-caste Hindus (still only partially accomplished); an economy built around cottage industries in self-sufficient villages (a quixotic fantasy). This program proved far more difficult than evicting the British, Lelyveld notes, and earned the Mahatma hatred—and, finally, assassination—in an India riven by sectarian animosity and caste prejudice. Lelyveld pairs a sympathetic but critical analysis of Gandhi's politics with a vivid portrait of the Mahatma's charismatic strangeness: his makeover from business-suited, English-educated upper-caste lawyer to loincloth-clad sage; his odd diet and abhorrence of sex; his strained family life. A stirring, evenhanded account that relates the failure of Gandhi's politics of saintliness while attesting to its enduring power. Photos.