What more can be said about Gandhi, the subject of dozens of hagiographies, biographies and an autobiography; a hero of both Bollywood and Hollywood; a man whose face adorns stamps and currency? Plenty, if you are Rajmohan Gandhi, journalist, scholar, grandson of the Mahatma and now author of the door-stopping, 745-page Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. The book’s title and its author’s pedigree promise much. A scion of the great man, one hopes, will wrest Gandhi’s narrative away from cinematic hype and the Hindu extremists who claim to be his true inheritors (even though it was Hindu hard-liner Nathuram Godse who assassinated him).
The author only partly rises to the challenge, depending rather too heavily on his grandfather’s writings and offering little that is factually new. The extra insights that you would expect from a family member are not there. There is a wonderful photograph of Gandhi cuddling young Rajmohan on his lap, but barely any family lore—puzzling, given how much access Rajmohan must have had to his grandfather’s siblings, nieces and nephews. Little is said about the author’s father, Devdas (a favored youngest son and activist), or his maternal grandfather, the brilliant Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, second governor-general of independent India and one of Gandhi’s closest aides.
Exceptions to the author’s reserve mostly center on Gandhi’s limitations as a family man. Where the world sees a saint, Rajmohan Gandhi sees a cruel husband and a mostly absent father, paying scant attention to his children’s schooling and dragging wife Kasturba across continents at will, belittling her desire for the simplest of material possessions, then expecting her to comply when he turns from amorous husband to platonic companion to apparent adulterer. Gandhi took on a magnetic personality in the presence of young women, and was able to persuade them to join him in peculiar experiments of sleeping and bathing naked together, without touching, all apparently to strengthen his chastity. (Whether these experiments were always successful is anyone’s guess.) It is also revealed that Gandhi began a romantic liaison with Saraladevi Chaudhurani, niece of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore—a disclosure that has created a buzz in the Indian press. The author tells us that Gandhi, perhaps disingenuously, called it a “spiritual marriage,” a “partnership between two persons of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent.”
This bombshell occupies only five pages, but it gives Rajmohan Gandhi enough material for his book’s redeeming feature—namely, the clear depiction of the tensions between Gandhi’s erratic emotional compass and his unswerving moral one. For despite the occasional salacious lapses, the overarching principle that infused Gandhi’s life was his intrinsic belief in the equality of all souls. Even though he operated in an obsessively caste- and class-ridden society, Gandhi never viewed people as Hindu or Muslim, Brahmin or untouchable. He even refused to think of the British as the enemy. His war was about righteousness, not us against them.
When the people disobeyed Gandhi’s pacifist injunctions, and erupted into communal violence after independence, he went on a hunger strike until the rioting stopped. He wanted freedom but without bloodshed. He also eschewed any egotistical desire to retain control of events, going along with India’s partition, even though he was against it, because he thought it was what the people wanted. We all know that a radical, all-encompassing love of humanity can be one of the most transformative forces on earth. Rajmohan Gandhi’s book reminds us that it can spring from the most ordinary of hearts.