'Great Soul': Joseph Lelyveld tells Mahatma Gandhi's larger-than-life story
Joseph Lelyveld's "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India" traces the life of India's greatest activist, from his beginnings as a London-educated lawyer fighting discrimination in South Africa to his leadership of India's troubled independence movement. Lelyveld, a former New York Times reporter and editor, will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Special to The Seattle Times
Joseph LelyveldThe author of "Great Soul" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stimson Auditorium of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 E. Prospect St. in Seattle's Volunteer Park. Free with museum admission, co-presented by the Center for Asian Art and Ideas and Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India'
by Joseph Lelyveld
Knopf, 425 pp., $28.95
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of India's independence movement, was the first national leader to employ nonviolent resistance as a means of forcing political change. During his extraordinary life he was at times a lawyer, activist, visionary and proponent of vegetarianism, a man who dedicated himself to the causes of social justice and minority rights. He was awarded the honorific "Mahatma," or Great Soul, by none other than Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
"Great Soul," a meticulously researched biography of this saintly man, is a new offering by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld ("Omaha Blues"). Although the author focuses on the high points of Gandhi's life, he attempts to show his human side by illuminating the trials, ambiguities and eccentricities of the man.
The book opens with Gandhi's arrival in South Africa in 1893 as a 24-year-old, London-educated lawyer. All around him, he sees racial oppression. He soon experiences it himself when he's thrown out of the first-class compartment of a train because of his skin color. Although he eventually manages to get back in, he has suffered humiliation, and resolves to fight the segregation policies of the white colonialists. Gandhi seems to have had, even at that young age, an innate sense of justice. Alone, far away from home, surrounded by institutionalized racial injustice, he focused that instinct on opposing it.
Although a man of higher status, Gandhi joins indentured laborers, mostly Indian Muslims, in carrying out a nonviolent struggle against discriminatory laws such as restricted property rights that govern almost every aspect of their lives. Gandhi calls this nonviolence "passive resistance" and later renames it Satyagraha or "adherence to truth." By the time he returns to India two decades later, he's reinvented himself as a savvy political leader.
The situation in India proves to be far more complex, fraught with issues of poverty and caste as well as tension between religious factions. Soon, at the urging of a mentor, Gandhi is thrust onto the maelstrom of Indian national politics. His aim is not only to free India from British rule, but also to fight social inequities and build nationhood. He organizes a movement of noncooperation against the British rulers, leading to numerous stays in prison. Through this entire tumultuous period, Gandhi remains steadfast in his advocacy of Hindu-Muslim unity, which only serves to antagonize various religious factions. At long last freedom comes in 1947 but results in the partitioning of India and creation of a new predominantly Muslim country: Pakistan. Much to Gandhi's dismay, the event also sets off horrific sectarian violence, culminating in his assassination in 1948.
Did Gandhi achieve what he set out to do? Were his goals realistic? Did his principles endure beyond his lifetime? These are the questions that permeate the book.
Lelyveld, who has traveled extensively in both South Africa and India as a correspondent for The New York Times, has lifted his volume above similar titles on the market by incorporating many little-known facts and episodes. He's bent on scrutinizing the trials and failures of Gandhi as comprehensively as his triumphs, if not more so. At times the author is a skeptic, searching for patterns of behavior or possible hidden motives of his subject even in minor matters. At one point Gandhi, who practiced sexual abstinence as a means of conserving energy for the national independence struggle, went to the dietary extreme of excluding cow's milk from his already meager vegetarian diet, fearing it might arouse him sexually.
These digressions are refreshingly candid, although on occasion they may seem tiresome.
As quoted in the book, Gandhi himself has observed: "For men like me, you have to measure them not by the rare moments of greatness in their lives, but by the amount of dust they collect on their feet in the course of life's journey."
In this fine work, Lelyveld has taken Gandhi at his word.
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