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A Different Gandhi

Voices become hushed. His name evokes a formal reverence, even among those who have never known the details of his time here…and the killings are remembered as a long-ago typhoon, another kind of disaster.

Lelyveld has exploded so many myths and heaped up so many defeats that his life of Gandhi could easily be read as an ultimately critical one, however judiciously and carefully constructed. After all, in spite of his name being linked with the struggle for freedom in South Africa, Gandhi had practically no contact with Africa or its people. His campaign against “untouchability” in India had limited success even within his own family and circle. The new constitution did make “untouchability” illegal and did provide a system of “reserved” places for untouchables—in schools, colleges, and government jobs—but this has led periodically to heated debate and violent clashes with those who consider such advantages unfair. The traditional attitude has not vanished and the living conditions for the very poor and for many manual workers have not improved much since Gandhi’s lifetime.

Most grievously, Gandhi could not halt Hindu–Muslim antagonism; it morphed into India–Pakistan hostility, which has led to several wars and enduring suspicion between India and Pakistan. Lelyveld describes in detail Gandhi’s inability to build productive relationships with other leaders like Jinnah and Ambedkar, while little is said of the happy and successful collaboration with others, for example with Nehru.

One might think that Gandhi’s legacy on the whole has been depicted negatively and yet there is no denying Lelyveld’s deep sympathy with the man. The picture that emerges is of someone intensely human, with all the defects and weaknesses that suggests, but also a visionary with a profound social conscience and courage who gave the world a model for nonviolent revolution that is still inspiring. It was a model for revolution both on the vast political level and on the personal and domestic one: nothing was unimportant in Gandhi’s eyes, and nothing impossible. He set an almost impossibly high standard and struggled personally to meet it. So if it is all seen as ending in tragedy, it was, Lelyveld writes,

not because he was assassinated, nor because his noblest qualities inflamed the hatred in his killer’s heart. The tragic element is that he was ultimately forced, like Lear, to see the limits of his ambition to remake his world.
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