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Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma GandhiGandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The complexity of Gandhiji’s life requires careful attention to both his public and personal trials. This is the basis on which Wolpert proposes to build yet another biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most well examined and yet one of the most enigmatic personalities. Wolpert says that even as he was writing his many works on India, he was always drawn towards Gandhi’s life but yet shying away from the endeavor, invariably daunted by Gandhi’s elusive personality and the extent of his archive, yet hoping that greater maturity and deeper knowledge of India would help him to understand the Mahatma’s mentality and reasons for his often contradictory behavior. When he finally decided to do so and confronted the veritable mountain of literature that exists about the great man, he almost decided then to abandon his “Gandhi” once again, “feeling that perhaps I had nothing new to add to what was known about the amazing man who called his life an “open book,” and fearing that at age sixty-eight, completing my research and writing might take longer than my lifetime.”

While a noble quest in itself, in the search for an alternative take and for a more comprehensible explanation Wolpert can be said to have stumbled, and badly. One wishes he had taken better head of his own misgivings. Gandhi used to famously call his own life as his Tapasya. Wolpert translates this tapasya as passion (thence the title of the book), then elaborates on the classic, noble meanings of the word (in drawing a parallel to ‘the passion of the christ’, for the benefit of his western readers) then ends up reverting back to the modern and much more ordinary meaning of the word with no sanction from the original tapasya. He continues to use the word passion in all sorts of contexts and gets it thoroughly mixed up. The reader has to put in a special effort to keep things straight about which context the word is being used in in any given instant.

He then proceeds to analyze Gandhi’s life and his now much publicized ‘personal life’ from what can only be a called simplified western understanding of some vague tantric and magical ‘stuff’. This leads to selective attention to possibly controversial letters and passages and Wolpert eventually slides into a continuous exposé-mentality that makes not much of an attempt at trying to understand the real meaning behind the ‘experiments’. The world has been treated to a lot of this about Gandhiji by now but the mud does not seem to stick. This might perhaps be because he was open about his life in a way almost unimaginable now and just as when he asked his friends then to point out any error in his ways, the same question can hardly be answered assertively even now.

Wolpert’s overly spiritual take on Gandhi’s life and seeking an explanation in that alone is detrimental to any real understanding. Gandhiji was not a mere spiritual guru, he was a shrewd political leader who mobilized more people voluntarily than perhaps anyone ever has. He combined religion, politics, idealism and personal relationships into a single field of action. Gandhi’s life can even be said to be, without too much exaggeration, an object lesson on codes of purity and honor, on the meaning of martyrdom, and on the construction of a heroic life. Nevertheless, his life should be seen as a human life, no more and no less, and as a testament to the heights that the human spirit can climb with patient effort. That is where the inspiration of his ‘life as message’ lies: in replicating a part of that ambition of spirit, not in being a distant unattainable sainthood emulatable only through statues and honorifics.

In the end, the book is reduced to an overly romanticized set of platitudes, talking sometimes dreamily of yogic strength and sometimes of some mysterious ‘ancient civilization’ in Wolpert’s half-distracted quest to explain the reason behind these ‘experiments’ and of Gandhi’s ‘passion’. The explanations are not always coherent and shows scant understanding of the scriptural knowledge and Vedic traditions that Gandhi drew from in order to formulate his life and rules, and if drilled the author might be hard pressed to supply what he meant by half of these platitudinous terms.

The book also disappoints as a scholarly exercise: Wolpert has in fact tried to deconstruct Gandhiji from an almost anthropological perspective. There are many different ways in which the traditional subjects of social anthropology can be described, and one would perhaps contend, borrowing from Marc Augé, that anthropology has always been an anthropology of the ‘here and now’. This does not mean Augé would implore Wolpert that anthropology has to cast its eye only on objects that are near it, but rather that the mode by which knowledge is produced in anthropology is the mode of intimacy. The ‘here’ is the society in which the anthropologist must have travelled and lived, while the ‘now’ refers to the privileged place given to the present. Unfortunately Wolpert satisfies neither condition and hence his mode of producing knowledge, has a unique intellectual object – the ‘exotic Other’. This exotic Other can not be encountered accidentally, it has to be sought out as the opposite of the Self. Hence, as Amartya Sen would argue, anthropological knowledge can come to be a map of difference, of alterity or to be entirely slotted into his one of three categories: the exoticist approach. Any biography thus conceived is doomed to be a theatre of the exotic and hardly a source of knowledge or understanding.

In never being able to make up his mind about whether he wanted to explore the personal life or the political life, or in perhaps not being able to find any way to separate the entangled strands of the two, Wolpert compromises too much and presents us with a very shallow work. The book cannot serve as an introductory read because it leaves out and simplifies too much, and it cannot serve as a supplementary read since it has nothing original to add. So what purpose did the book serve? I cannot discern one.

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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Books

 

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The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

The Idea of IndiaThe Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

My Rating★★★★★

Wow, It took me 13 months to read this book. I knew very little about the book’s context and about the ideas explored when I started reading the book (partly because of the allure of the title and partly because It was among the 25 Popular Penguins). During the first 12 months I read the first half of the book, plodding slowly, 2-3 pages once in a while, with a deliberate exercise of will-power, littering the book with marginalia and exclamation marks – amazed at the language and the torrent of ideas and information.

Then, unintentionally, the book was gradually put aside and lost among a growing tide of must-read books. Meanwhile, I read many other books dealing with the same subject matter and discussing many of the same questions, familiarizing myself to some extent with the numerous arguments. Today I picked up Khilnani again to read a few more pages to get a move on (I hate half-completed books on my shelf) and to my surprise, all the plodding was gone and I breezed through the rest of the book.

No more was it an incomprehensible lecture which I should try and capture as much of as I can, it was now a pleasant conversation with enough interesting back-and-forths from both sides that notes and such became unnecessary. The book became more memorable and the reading experience actually improved with this loss of awe.

This is the first mid-book transition like this for me in which the tone and texture of the book, along with my entire attitude towards it shifts so rapidly. Makes me wonder how much is missed by reading a well written and popular book first without taking the trouble to study the subject first – most of the richness that informed the author in his writing is lost on the reader by the author’s attempt to make the book more readable. It is a necessary tragedy. (Unless the reader takes it on himself to alleviate the collateral damage). Is it?

 

 

P.S. About the book itself, it is a very poetic and well written exploration of the question of Indian Identity. While Khilnani doesn’t offer much in the form of new theories on what this definition should be, he very evocatively sets forth the many identities that have and continue to define the vast nation. The discussion on Nehru and Gandhi is exceptional in their clarity and the unreserved take on Hindutva deserves to be read with great attention. The last chapter rises to a poetic crescendo with Khilnani offering his own conceptions on how these various identities should be interpreted and accepted. The stunning bibliographic essay which lists close to 200 odd books is a treasure trove and has given me an enormous and intimidating list of books that should be explored.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Books

 

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Oft In My Thought

Oft In My Thought

Ah, how often I have sought in my days,

To emulate the great leaders, and be gently led,

By their virtuous actions and well-laid plans.

How often I charted the best courses to take

To reach those heights of thought and action;

And thought evermore of what best will portray

Their everlasting influence on this humble self,

That will make this world to be as they always saw,

In their lofty wishes and their fanciful dreams.

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But all those thoughts, alas, they too crumble and dry,

And serve no more the masters that send them forth,

Who are now but ashes or just food to now dead worms,

And so are their thoughts but food to a few blind men.

And this world that lets the best of it die,

And leaves not even a soul or a smile behind,

For what I should try, what lasting effect,

When in showing the virtues, I forget them more?

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How to pass that time of the night,

When all too familiar shame shows its head:

Have you forgotten all your virtues,

It asks with the malevolent sweet smiles,

The dead might banish sins and conquer great heights,

But will the living learn, it sneers and slips away.

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To what profit we move, to what end we sing,

Praises of these men, and put their faces in public places?

The most good, most fair and most just of men;

They no longer walk this realm, what omen there?

And when the young can no longer dare imagine

That their footsteps once hallowed these very ruins…

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This poem is dedicated to my last reading of:

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

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The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

My Rating: ★★★★★

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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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