BY now there must be easily over 500 books on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, if not more. One would not be surprised if the list goes beyond the thousand mark. What is it that makes people still want to write about him? Practically every aspect of his life has been under the microscope. His early days, his lost days as a young barrister in India, his work in South Africa to fight white racism, his subsequent return to India to take over in due course a stagant independence movement, his successes and failures, his semi-spiritual approach to politics and, of course, his sexual life. It is that last aspect of his tortuous life that now seem to fascinate western writers. Fair enough. But to know an Indian leader’s attitude towards sex and how he handles it demands an intimate knowledge of Indian ethos and culture.
This is a land which divides life into four ashramas, baalya (childhood), yavvana (youth) grihast (householding) and sanyaasa (forsaking everything). The average Hindu may not be conscious of these four ashramas at every point in his life, but he is deeply aware of their meaning and significance. It is in this context that Gandhiji’s life and work must be examine.
Sadly Jad Adams shows himself unfit to write about Gandhiji and sex. He does not at all seem aware of the Hindu ethos and its everyday relevance. One does not have to be a psychiatrist to know that the sex urge is the most natural in all human beings. There are some in whom the urge is painfully high and not so easily manageable. Among some others the urge may not be so oppressive. Among still many others, it hardly amounts to daily stress. Those highly oppressed had many options open to them in an earlier Indian society. One could pay regular visits to prostitutes, or have mistresses or get married to four wives. It was Gandhiji’s misfortune that he was in the highly oppressed category. Right from his youth he had problems. He was too moralistic to visit prostitutes to satisfy what seemed insatiable desire. He practically ran away from one-and the only one he was introduced to and visited-inviting her wrath. His high sense of morals would not let him even flirt with ladies introduced to him in London. Kasturba whom he married at the age of thirteen, was a year older to him and that created its own problems.
Like a few Hindus, deeply interested in salvation he wanted to get rid of his sexual torment by trying to practice celibacy – brahmacharya. One is reminded of Vishvamitra and how, despite all the penance he practised, he fell to the charm of Menaka. It is the Indian way of telling that the sexual urge is not so easily suppressed. Could Gandhiji suppress it? One way to find that out, Gandhiji felt, was to “experiment” with himself and those willing or coerced to cooperate-a most stupid thing to do, as his disciple, Vinobha Bhave once told him in his face. It brought him disrepute.
His ideas, when he implemented them, were relevant for the times. Thus, Gandhiji was all for village self-sufficiency; today, in the context of the globalisation of the economy, that sounds ridiculous but can’t one say that it was precisely because India was reasonably self-sufficient that it could come out of recession with the least damage to its economy? Gandhiji should be analysed in the context of his time. If he changed his life-style and opted for the loin cloth it was because that was one way he could relate to the poor in the countryside better than anyone else. Of course, one of his biggest mistakes was to support the khilafat agitation; he had hoped thereby that he would reach out to Muslims and win their support to the nationalist cause. It turned out to be a disaster.
Adams is silent about the Moplah rebellion. One can understand, even agree with Adams on what he has to say about Gandhiji’s political stance, but does he have to make sly references to the Mahatma’s “wealthy supporters”? Those supporters helped Gandhiji in his fight for independence. Adams makes a reference to Gandhiji’s walking alone, stick in hand, in the Naokhali countryside. According to him that is a “journalistic invention”, that Gandhiji was never alone but had a vast entourage accompanying him. But why blame Gandhiji if the media wanted to portray him as a lonely figure out to fight violence? Gandhiji tried to do what he could to restore peace and order in a land torn by violence. He deserves credit for that. He did walk alone, whether Adams or anyone acknowledges that fact. Lord Mountbatten called him his ‘one-man army’ and that was factually correct.
Adams is totally wrong when he charges Gandhiji with making Muslims want Pakistan, through Hinduisation of politics. Muslims wanted Pakistan long before Jinnah advocated it. There are many issues where Adams shows little understanding of Indian politics down the decades and that is where this book falls short of credibility. One doesn’t expect Adams to be what he calls “an adulatory biographer”. But he could have at least lived a few years in India to know why Gandhiji behaved the way he did. Facts don’t make history. The right analysis of facts does. That is where Adams has failed. His obsession with Gandhiji’s approach to sex might get him a few readers but it makes a mockery of what a good biography should be. He should go back to school.
(Quercus, London, c/o Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017)