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Book review: 'Great Soul,' a Gandhi biography by Joseph Lelyveld

A new biography looks beyond the mythmaking to establish Gandhi's achievements in the context of his time.

April 13, 2011|By Jonathan Kirsch | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Among the most remarkable moments in Lelyveld's book are those in which he examines Gandhi's goal of Muslim-Hindu unity, which is "hard to imagine in an era in which predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan confront each other as nuclear powers." Muslim votes were necessary for the adoption of Gandhi's program of "non-cooperation" at a meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1920, and one of his allies "took the precaution of rounding up a flying force of burly 'volunteers,' Muslims uncommitted to nonviolence, to face down any anti-Gandhi demonstrators." In the end, of course, Gandhi failed to achieve a merger between the Hindu and Muslim movements, but he came close to "the mirage of one."

"Yet from a distance of more than seven decades," writes Lelyveld in a different context, "what stands out is the commitment rather than the futility."

In a sense, "Gandhi" is a gloss on its subject's life rather than a conventional biography, but there is nothing abbreviated about the book. Lelyveld shows us Gandhi in tight close-up, and he places the man in various frames of reference — social, political and religious — that allow us to understand and appreciate him not as a plaster saint but as a flesh-and-blood human who wrote himself into history, and not only because of his shimmering vision of a more perfect world but also because of his sheer force of will.

Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Journal and the author of, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

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