Author Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times, is also notable for instigating a significant uproar surrounding his new Mohandas Gandhi biography Great Soul. When reviews first appeared, this site noted that much of media focused on his assertions that Gandhi may have been gay, regarded South African blacks offensively and seemed to tolerate fascists like Mussolini and Hitler, among other unflattering tidbits.
Leave it to Christopher Hitchens to have the final say on the matter. This month, he untangles the biography in an essay for The Atlantic, beginning with the most common misperceptions about Gandhi:
The standard view of Gandhi is that he cut his ethical teeth by opposing racial discrimination in South Africa, failed to dent the intransigent system there but had greater success with nonviolent civil disobedience in British India, broke his heart and ruined his health by opposing the Hindu caste system, strove to reconcile Hindus and Muslims, failed to prevent a sanguinary partition, and was murdered just after attaining a partial and mutilated independence that nonetheless endures: a monument not to his own shortcomings but to those of others.
And weighs that exalted view against Lelyveld's more earthly revelations:
Gandhi was forever nominating himself as a mediator: in 1937 in Palestine, for example, where he concluded that Jews could demand a state of their own only if all Arab opinion were to become reconciled to it; and later unsolicitedly advising the peoples of Czechoslovakia to try what Lelyveld calls “satyagraha to combat storm troopers.” The nullity of this needs no emphasis: what is more striking—in one venerated so widely for modest self-effacement—is its arrogance. Recording these successive efforts at quasi-diplomacy and “peacemaking,” Lelyveld lapses into near-euphemism. At one point he calls Gandhi’s initiatives “a mixed bag, full of trenchant moral insights, desperate appeals, and self-deluding simplicities.” The crawling letter to Hitler, he summarizes as “a desperate, naive mix of humility and ego” and as one of a series of “futile, well-intentioned missives.” We can certainly detect the influence of Saul Bellow’s “Good Intentions Paving Company,” but the trenchant moral insights and the humility are distinctly less conspicuous.
We won't spoil reading Hitchens prose in full, but we'll note that--in the end--the author seems to find enough evidence in the biography to support "both readings" of Mohandas Gandhi.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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