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The Mahatma on the periphery

Shreekant Sambrani 

Ved Mehta
Penguin, 1977 (reissued 2014)

xii + 300 pages; Rs 399

Why has inflicted anew on Indian readers this desultory book on Mahatma Gandhi, quite the worst by a long chalk among the lot I have read? That may sound heretical in view of the many laudatory reviews excerpted on the flyleaf of this edition (obviously not corrected or updated). "It has not aged well" might be a charitable explanation, but I would have rated it the same had I read it when it first came out 37 years ago.

The contents of the book appeared initially in They are grouped into three sections: subtler and more lasting shapes, in the steps of the autobiographer and his biographers, and, finally, the company they keep.

The second section, the longest (nearly half the book), is also the easiest to deal with. It is a straightforward narration (and only that) of the great man's life, based on secondary sources. The reader should not expect anything new here. And there isn't. anticipates this in the foreword. "The life of ... ... is abundantly documented; perhaps no life in any period has been more so," he writes. Mr Mehta picks and chooses details rather whimsically. Anyone familiar with the Mahatma's life will find many inexplicable omissions. For example, the disaffection of the Mahatma's oldest son, Harilal, from his father is mentioned, but not the root cause of it. wilfully denied a benefactor's funds meant for sending the son to England because he thought it to be nepotism.

Gandhi's evolution into a moral leader who could mobilise masses in South Africa, his journey to total identification with the most oppressed in India and the emergence of a political leader who could mesmerise a nation like none before or since are all narrated as a series of anecdotal episodes. Other weighty matters such as Gandhi's search for suitable food in England, places he rented temporarily, and acquaintances who were not even footnotes to his life are also accorded the same treatment.

Mr Mehta follows doggedly the ways of American objective reportage, where the narrator is a camera and recorder. The result is a remarkably passionless pastiche: Gandhi as a faddist, a family tyrant, a chaser-after of weird Utopias. These tawdry picture postcards never make up a portrait of the leader who was a role model to Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, and whom Albert Einstein eulogised as "Generations to come ... will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked the earth". Mr Mehta quotes that too.

Watch Richard Attenborough's epic Gandhi instead. It provides in three hours, roughly the time an average person takes to read these pages, a far more animated and rousing yet realistic profile of the man than Mr Mehta does.

Mr Mehta interviewed Gandhi's "apostles", family members, associates, benefactors, others minding various bits of Gandhiana, in India and abroad between 1971 and 1976. Most of these people were of an advanced age and Mr Mehta describes in excruciating detail their many infirmities, physical, mental, financial and cultural. That may be truthful, but is entirely irrelevant.

There are exhaustive descriptions of people's features and (especially) blemishes, their clothes, their surroundings, the setting, until one drowns in them. There is dust, filth, flies, mosquitoes, even a dead horse. Mr Mehta's loving attention to squalor may not be deliberate, but his eminently readable prose cannot counter the overwhelming feeling that he is mocking his subjects - and readers, too.

The last section is truly reflective of Mr Mehta's boundless interest in the periphery of Gandhi's life. The chapter on non-violence is mostly about Gandhi's ideas of brahmacharya. The Mahatma has been candid about this himself, but that is not enough for Mr Mehta. He devotes his interview of the first Dalit woman growing up in a Gandhi ashram to the finer points of cleaning chamber pots in the ashram.

The fabled fact-checking of has surprisingly failed here. Some egregious lapses: Senguptas are not Brahmins; was probably past 75, certainly not in her 60s, when Mr Mehta met her; the Kathiawar peninsula is connected to the mainland by a populated stretch 100 kilometres at its narrowest, not a strip of often flooded salt land; Champaran is in the Bihar floodplains, not the foothills of mountains (the state has an average elevation of 53 metres); the 11th-century Persian invasion of India was not the first to sow seeds of conflict between Hinduism and Islam (the sack of Somnath by Arab raiders from Sind in early eighth century did that); Poona at barely 600 metres above sea level was never a hill station and was a thriving urban centre even in the 1930s. Listing all errors would make this review comparable in length to articles.

There are lessons here for the reviewer and publisher. I must be very selective in volunteering to review books, especially by "name" authors. And Penguin, which has recently pulped its own reputation in India, must be even more selective in calling its modern classics.

First Published: Thu, February 27 2014. 21:25 IST