- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India” (Alfred A. Knopf), by Joseph Lelyveld: In this revealing, original portrait of the man known as the “Father of India,” Joseph Lelyveld charts the development of Gandhi’s social vision, tying his early experiences as a lawyer in South Africa to the movement he went on to lead at home.

Taking up a story already portrayed in countless books and films, Lelyveld constructs a fresh narrative, focusing on Gandhi’s maturation as a reformer and challenging many of the popular accounts around the Indian spiritual and intellectual leader’s growth.

“The Gandhi I’ve pursued is the one who claimed once to `have been trying all my life to identify myself with the most illiterate and downtrodden,’” Lelyveld writes.

Lelyveld spent nearly four decades at The New York Times, serving as foreign correspondent in India and South Africa. He utilizes troves of articles, scholarly accounts and individual testimony to create a seamless, impartial account of Gandhi’s transformation.

The story begins with 23-year-old Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa, where he was to assist a Muslim merchant and his English attorney in a civil lawsuit. The brief sojourn turns into a 21-year expedition in which Gandhi’s beliefs on British colonial rule and India _ in particular the discriminative caste system _ are consistently tested.

The often repeated tale of Gandhi’s social awakening is that of his ejection from a first-class compartment by a white passenger who refused to sit alongside a “coolie.” But Lelyveld highlights an equally jarring experience that had occurred two weeks before. Gandhi showed up to court in a black turban, and a magistrate insisted it be removed, saying it was a sign of disrespect.

Gandhi walked out instead of complying with the request.

Lelyveld also shores up evidence showing how Gandhi’s views on “untouchables,” low-caste Indians whose integration and acceptance into mainstream life and society became one of his life’s principal causes, changed dramatically through his South Africa experience.

He begins with mostly conformist views on “untouchables,” advocating for the “free Indians,” not indentured laborers, but further exposure to their plight, particularly through war, altered his viewpoints, with Gandhi eventually leading a massive strike that yielded modest results.

By the time he left for India, Gandhi wrote, “I am, as ever the community’s indentured laborer.”

Equally, or more daunting, challenges await Gandhi in India, where he is welcomed as an outsider. Early on, he concludes that in order for there to be progress, the poorest must be educated, as he claims to have done with the indentured in South Africa.

“Already he’s on his way to turning his South African experience into a parable,” Lelyveld notes, “editing out unfortunate details such as the outbreaks of violence in the sugar country, or the ambiguity of the movement’s results, especially the glaring shortfall in actual benefits for the indentured.”

Time and again Gandhi is met with adversity in his quest to lift the “untouchables” and unite Hindus and Muslims, a social transformation he believed vital to achieving independence.

Ultimately, this was a vision he was only, at best, momentarily able to realize. Despite the millions who marched alongside him and showed up to hear him speak, Gandhi was frequently disappointed by violence and intolerance that followed his steps toward advancement.

Lelyveld, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White,” succeeds in painting Gandhi the spiritual leader as remarkably human _ prone to episodes of doubt, and so forceful in his quest that he sometimes alienated allies.

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