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53-July-Aug-2011
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Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

missing imageThe former executive editor of the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, a book about apartheid.

The Topic: Mohandas K. Gandhi, who over time came to be known by the honorific "Mahatma," or "Great Soul," is one of the most renowned figures of the 20th century. However, despite the spate of Gandhi biographies, he remains an enigma in many ways. His reputation as the father of Indian independence has obscured some of his more personal aspects (such as his sexual life), his growth, and his compromises. Much of his political and spiritual agenda beyond the goal of independence has been neglected or ignored. In Great Soul, Joseph Lelyveld makes Gandhi's thought the center of his story and then examines aspects of his life with the purpose of finding out how that thought intersected with reality, making for an illuminating, though unconventional, telling of Gandhi's life.
Knopf. 425 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780307269584

Barnes and Noble Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Lelyveld's probing account of the visionary-as-politician reveals that, as one might expect, the politician often prevailed over the visionary. ... [J]ust as the Gandhian discipline of truth-telling could fortify the soul, so does Lelyveld's sympathetic yet unsparing look at Gandhi's uncertainty and anguish." George Scialabba

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Most books about Mohandas K. Gandhi--the ‘Mahatma' or ‘Great Soul' best known as the father of Indian independence and apostle of nonviolence--tend to hagiography. They sentimentalize and sanctify the great man. The considerable virtue of Joseph Lelyveld's fascinating account of Gandhi's life is that it avoids this trap." Alan Cate

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Joseph Lelyveld's judicious and thoughtful new book ... seems almost eccentric, devoted as it is to explaining the evolution of a social and moral philosophy that, 60 years after the end of the British Raj, has lost the attention of the nation it once enthralled. ... Mr. Lelyveld has restored human depth to the Mahatma, the plaster saint, allowing his flawed human readers to feel a little closer to his lofty ideals of nonviolence and universal brotherhood." Hari Kunzru

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Many aspects of Gandhi's life and ideas emerge here in damning light, but Lelyveld diligently illuminates their underlying context. This may be why he deals more gently, or perhaps more circumspectly, with some of Gandhi's striking ideological volte-facespolitical retreats, social compromises and personal idiosyncrasies than many of his contemporaries, biographers and certainly his detractors have done." Mridu Rai

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Lelyveld ... is a worthy interpreter of Gandhi's varied life. ... Rather than focus on Gandhi's chronology, Lelyveld slices through his life to understand his compulsions, read into his thought processes, and assess his actions and outcomes, maintaining a tone of admiring observation without tipping into hagiography or criticizing him with the wisdom that only hindsight can provide." Salil Tripathi

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"To call Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India a biography is to stretch that genre's meaning. ... Perhaps the best classification for the book is to call it a rumination, based on copious research and intellectual passion and an author's search for the answer to this question: Is it possible for one individual to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings over a vast geographical territory?" Steve Weinberg

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is not a full-scale biography. Nor is it for beginners. Lelyveld assumes his readers are familiar with the basic outlines of Gandhi's life, and while the book includes a bare-bones chronology and is helpfully divided into South African and Indian sections, it moves backward and forward so often, it's sometimes harder than it should be to follow the shifting course of Gandhi's thought." Geoffrey C. Ward

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. ... These digressions are refreshingly candid, although on occasion they may seem tiresome." Bharti Kirchner

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"People used to take away the sand that had touched his feet as relics--one relation kept Gandhi's fingernail clippings--and modern biographers seem to treat him with much the same reverence today. Mr. Lelyveld is not immune, making labored excuses for him at every turn of this nonetheless well-researched and well-written book." Andrew Roberts

Critical Summary

It is somewhat difficult to describe the character of reviews of Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul, perhaps because of the very force the book had on its reviewers. Many praised Lelyveld for his journalistic ability to uncover new facts about his subject and state them plainly while also developing a narrative of the key conflicts of Gandhi's life. But this revelation of a more human "Mahatma" often tempered critics' enthusiasm (or, in the case of the Wall Street Journal, inspired a diatribe, which in turn led to controversy and legal action against the book in parts of India). In the end, however, there is no doubt that like its subject, Lelyveld's book inspired readers to both contemplation and action.

Supplemental Reading

Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth | Mohanda Karamchand Gandhi (1949): Here is Gandhi in his own words--a powerful figure, though he is writing for his contemporaries and does not always explain his accomplishments in detail or provide enough context.

Gandhi A Life | Yogesh Chadha (1998): If Great Soul is not pure biography, Gandhi: A Life is. Chadha, an Indian businessman, provides the most recent, comprehensive look at Gandhi's life and achievements, incorporating plenty of Gandhi's own writing.