Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India, by Jad Adams, Pegasus Books, 323 pp. (Including notes, bibliography and photographs) 26.95, hardcover.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For many Americans, Mohandas K. Gandhi may be a shadowy figure, influential in another day and time, in India, once a colony of Great Britain.
In fact, many understandings of this prophetic and controversial person may have been formed by the film Gandhi, starring Sir Ben Kingsley. This film was widely appreciated, and some may have understood it as an accurate recalling of a holy man's nonviolent crusade.
To more fully understand Gandhi's life and influence, one must turn to books such as this one. In "Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India," the Mahatma (or "great soul," as he was called by some), appears as a man of his own time, bound by both the constructive and destructive ties of his religious faith, and by what may be considered a negative attitude toward his wife Kasturba and his sons.
At the center of Gandhi's life was a particular view of the world. As his thought developed, he saw himself as an important figure, whose symbolic actions could move people to change. Sometimes he would lead a march, walking almost barefoot for hundreds of miles, dressed in the simple garb of workers. At another time, he would declare a fast, spending days eating nothing, and drinking only water. In his personal life, the author reveals that Gandhi treated his wife as a second-class person. Imprisoned, he receives notice that Mrs. Gandhi is seriously, possibly fatally, ill. To her, he writes that if she dies, it will be the will of God, and that he had no plans to pay a fine and be released from prison so that he could come and see her. He remained in jail, but his illiterate wife did survive.
More curious than Gandhi's treatment of family were his strange and well publicized sexual practices. Celibate for many years, he still had women who slept with him as he tested his ability to withstand temptation. In this activity he seems to have been successful, but he seems to have had an obsession with diet and sex, and even with his manner of dressing.
Jad Adams' biography reminds us of the power of symbolic action, and of the strength of nonviolent protest. When this tiny man spoke to Indians of his vision of truth and freedom, he convinced many that violence was a losing way, and that "soul force" was the best way of giving India freedom.
Was Gandhi the father of a free, modern India? Through reading this beautifully written book, complete with historic pictures, I came away more convinced that it was Gandhi's sometime rival Nehru who was the more effective leader.
Mr. Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi (no kin to Mohandas) became Prime Minister, as did her father, and later her son. Indira was a hardliner, given to harsh treatment of dissidents, and most especially the Sikhs, who ironically, made up her bodyguard. In revenge, her "secret service" assassinated her.