Sugata Bose is Gardiner professor of history. His books include A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire and the new His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire, a study of his great-uncle.
When India won independence at the famous midnight hour of August 14-15, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi stayed away from the festivities in New Delhi. Instead, he fasted in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Calcutta, quietly mourning the great human tragedy that accompanied what he called the vivisection of his motherland. The “great soul,” having been unable to prevent the subcontinent’s partition into two countries along ostensibly religious lines, was afflicted with a sense of failure. The supreme leader of India’s struggle for freedom from British rule had struggled with India to transcend its myriad differences of religion and caste. It is the latter struggle that forms the subject matter of this absorbing new book by Joseph Lelyveld ’58, A.M. ’60, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former executive editor of the New York Times.
“I merely touch on or leave out crucial periods and episodes,” Lelyveld tells us in his author’s note, “in order to hew in this essay to specific narrative lines I’ve chosen.” The spotlight is trained on Gandhi the social reformer, rather than on “the generalissimo of satyagraha,” as the Mahatma described himself—especially satyagraha (his technique of passive resistance) in the sense of a quest for truth through mass political activity. Lelyveld’s journalistic postings in New Delhi and Johannesburg sparked an intellectual curiosity that enables him to probe the deep connections in Gandhi’s life that spanned two widely separated shores of the Indian Ocean.
V.S. Naipaul once described Gandhi as the least Indian of Indian leaders. Lelyveld deftly explores this paradox, focusing on the ways in which Gandhi’s early South African experience formed the later Mahatma. It was a slow transformation. The young man who arrived in South Africa as a lawyer in 1893 to represent an Indian Muslim mercantile firm did not take up the cause of the hapless Indian indentured laborers in that country until 1913. It took time for this campaigner for Indian rights to shed the racial prejudice that he harbored toward Africans. Gandhi’s views on the evils of caste-based untouchability took shape in South Africa. His first political speeches were delivered within the precincts of South Africa’s mosques, a sign of the commitment of this Hindu leader to making common cause with the Muslims....