In the NYRB, Anita Desai reviews Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld.
Even in his lifetime the legend of Mahatma Gandhi had grown to such proportions that the man himself can be said to have disappeared as if into a dust storm. Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography sets out to find him. His subtitle alerts us that this is not a conventional biography in that he does not repeat the well-documented story of Gandhi’s struggle for India but rather his struggle with India, the country that exasperated, infuriated, and dismayed him, notwithstanding his love for it.
One might think that Gandhi’s legacy on the whole has been depicted negatively [by Lelyveld] 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.