In the second of Guha's two-volume biography of Gandhi, the Indian political icon enters epic struggles to deliver India from British rule, to forge harmonious relations between India's Hindu and Muslim populations, to end the pernicious Hindu practice of untouchability, and to develop India's economic and moral self-reliance.
Politician, freedom fighter, pacifist, ascetic-cum-guru, putative saint, it could be argued that for a true understanding of the man heralded by millions as a mahatma (great soul) the percipience of theology is required above that of orthodox history. Still, Ramachandra Guha is as dogged a researcher as Gandhi was an agitator ... the most exhaustive account yet of Gandhi’s temporal and spiritual crusades. A vivid, absorbing read ... Guha weaves together the narrative as deftly as Gandhi’s homespun cloth. His telling of this David and Goliath tale is greatly enhanced by excerpts from the private papers of Gandhi’s adversaries; his keen eye for the idiosyncratic often lends a life-affirming touch ... Guha seems overly anxious to defend his subject’s failings. But only Gandhi’s most ardent detractors (of which there are plenty in India) could put down this book and not recognize him as a remarkable, pioneering leader who changed the world and still has much to teach us.
Perhaps inevitably, with one who has been regarded almost as a saint, it is the flaws that will capture many readers’ attention. A key theme that emerges is Gandhi’s effort to control himself and those around him ... Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern another group Gandhi sought to instruct: women. Two sections in particular are likely to raise eyebrows ... Guha does as much as any reasonable biographer could to explain the 'experiments' with reference to Gandhi’s 40-year obsession with celibacy. Ultimately, though, the reader is left feeling that Gandhi’s own defenses of his behavior are riddled with self-justification ... Guha’s admiration for his subject is clear throughout this book. He tries to explain controversial aspects of Gandhi’s life by contextualizing them within Gandhi’s own thinking. Some of Gandhi’s fiercer critics may feel this is soft-pedaling, but it does help build a fair, thorough and nuanced portrait of the man ... Guha lets Gandhi appear on his own terms, and allows him to reveal himself in all his contradictions.
Apart from a number of minor, previously unknown details...Guha’s book repeats the narrative of Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic Gandhi. Guha presents no big argument, only small disagreements with Gandhi’s enemies and his own ... the only serious question it raises is whether a genuinely new biography of the man is even possible ... the answer might be to displace anything radical or at least illiberal about the Mahatma, the very thing with which genuinely new scholarship on him is concerned. But Guha doesn’t engage with this scholarship, seeking instead to defang Gandhi by downplaying the self-described 'philosophical anarchist,' who stood for the remaking of social relations by the power of sacrifice. Confusing non-violence with pacifism, Guha passes over his hero’s difficult ideas in silence ... Guha is at the same time touchy and craven in his attitude towards the west’s relationship with his subject and with India ... His book does little more than veil India’s present with a fantasy of non-violence safely ensconced in the past.