Top critical review
14 people found this helpful
Yet an other political biography of Gandhi!
on January 26, 2007
Overwhelmed by the hundreds of books already available scrutinizing, criticizing and or eulogizing the controversial life of Gandhi, Wolpert's dilemma when he thought of writing a book about Gandhi was what would he write that others have not written yet. Nevertheless, after so much introspection he has decided to write this book tempted by the significance of Gandhi's teachings in the wake of India's nuclear test of 1998. But, unfortunately, his attempt is falling woefully short of providing any new information on the life of Gandhi or is unable to challenge a critical mind on the life of one of the great and yet controversial figures of the 20th century.
In his work, Wolpert portrays a dutiful Gandhi of esteemed ideas and vision. But by often succumbing to Gandhi's saintly aura, Wolpert is unable to provide valuable insight from a historian's perspective on the circumstances and events leading to the spiritual development of Gandhi that we saw in him starting in South Africa, a topic that not many historians (may be except Judith Brown) tried their hands on and succeeded. Without any analysis of that sort, his work is nothing but yet another addition to the mundane category of political biography of Gandhi.
Contrary to the popular belief that Gandhi is the culprit for the partition, Wolpert has given many proofs from history for how the partition could not have been avoided despite Gandhi's many overtures and thus was absolving Gandhi completely from the crime. While that should be the right thing to do, Wolpert is also pointing out Gandhi's reluctance to listen to C.R. Das's (one of Gandhi's staunch supporters) candid and most plausible plea to Gandhi to accept Jinnah's proposal and work towards a peaceful partition. Gandhi who knew British's indifference to India's plea for political reforms after the First World War was not quite optimistic nor was he willing to sway from his stubborn position on the idea of unified India. Then at the end, Gandhi was completely sidelined by Nehru from the final politics of Mountbatten and was not even been consulted for his advice on partition. Wolpert could have done an excellent comparative study on the positive impacts of a partition with the whole Muslim population transmigrating leaving India's fate in the hands of its Hindu majority who nonetheless is the true denizen of the land. None of the historians I know have used this lost chance judiciously in repudiating Gandhi for not having taken that stance when Jinnah could not be budged from his insistence on partition. The partition should not had to be bloody had the leaders of both India and Britain shown more patience and done more planning. Though the freedom may have come late, the constitutional method for achieving India's freedom would have been less bloody.
Another `failure' that is blamed on Gandhi and which Wolpert roughly touched on is his handling of his family affairs. When he was trying to bring up a whole country in line with his principles, doing anything contrary for his children would be very un-Gandhian, and none can deny the fact that he loved all his kids and given basic education and support. One has to look into the details of the events leading to the alienation of some of his kids before putting blame on Gandhi. Wolpert having surely known some of these events has not attempted to put blame on Gandhi. In his wife's case, Gandhi had given complete liberty for her to break away from him if she chosen so. Kasturba, being an illiterate and having nothing to stand on her own, have nothing else to do than supporting her husband. It was too late by the time Gandhi realized that a man devoted to the service of people should never have a family or indulge in pleasures.
Gandhi had many qualms for western civilization but was not quite so for industrialization. What he against was machines stealing the jobs of millions of India's idle hands. He found imperative that these idle hands had to be employed first before bringing in machines. In fact Gandhi said that he was not against machines and would welcome it for anything that is beyond the capacity of people. He was wary about accepting a civilization, of which industrialization is a part of, that was (still is) in it's infancy in the place of a seasoned civilization that is thousands of years old. Gandhi's was a vision in which everything had its own time and place. For him one step at a time was good enough.
Even for freedom, Gandhi gave a proper time and place for its happening. He asked what difference it makes whether India is ruled by British or Indians as long as both have little knowledge of the real problems of India. Gandhi had a clear vision of India's future where both India and Britain work together as equal partners in a commonwealth enterprise not in a system of masters and slaves. Jalianwala Bagh massacre, Rowlatt act and the atrocities that followed in Punjab made him realize that British was not willing to see India on par and there started his opposition to the crown. Wolpert is unable to substantiate this most crucial transformation of Gandhi's political life that had had far reaching repercussions in the India's freedom struggle.
On the controversial topic of Gandhi's experiments with girls, Wolpert is groping in the dark unable to grasp the spiritual and psychological connotations of such experiments. One would have to believe that Gandhi never had any physical relations with any of his female disciples because none of the historians have made any indication on the contrary. In Manu's (one of the girls with whom he slept) book on Gandhi too she considered him only as her own `Mother'.
Wolpert's work is not devoid of blemishes either. He seems to have mistaken the meaning of Surendranath (in Hindu mythology it means king of all skies) as `Surrender Not' while referring to Surendranath Banerjea, a foremost political leader of British India. The fact is `Surrender Not' is the nickname that the British had given to Surendranath Banerjea (because Surendranath sounded more like `Surrender Not' when pronounced by the British) for his steadfast support for political reforms in British India. On another occasion Wolpert erroneously assumed Gandhi a true nationalist as early as in 1905 while referring him for indirectly supporting the British rule in the West Bengal by the statement Gandhi made in which he said it was the responsibility of British to quell the communal riots that broke out in Bengal in the wake of the partition, than blaming British for the partition itself. Gandhi considered himself as a true British loyalist as late as 1919 and on no account his loyalty to the crown had ever been questioned as early as in 1905.
Topics on Gandhi should not have to run out especially when our world is in such a sad state of affairs (I am not trying to be cynical here) in spite of all the `advancements' we made. What we need is a new generation of writers who have gone through the effects of modern wars, proliferations of nuclear weapons, impact of globalization, disintegration of morals, effects of depletion of natural resources, environmental pollution, economical imbalance, starvation of millions etc. to take a fresh look at his teachings and interpret them in the context of aforementioned impacts in the world. Gandhi said that so much advancement is made in the field of `violence' and equal amount of advancement could be made in the field of `non-violence' also. What Gandhi did was laying the foundation of that institute. Sadly, in the last 50 years since his death, not many studies have been conducted in that institute.
Despite its cerebral shortcomings, Wolpert's book on Gandhi could be recommended for anyone who is looking for a rudimentary introduction to Gandhi and the struggle in which he was part of during the early 20th century.