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Want to learn about Gandhi? Don't start here.
on 16 July 2013
Gandhi described his life as a series of experiments in truth, and his autobiography does take on a serial format - you start at the beginning, you progress to a final chapter. Autobiographies can and do fall into this serial trap - they recount episodes, they do not offer a critical evaluation, do not necessarily give any real or accurate insight into the emergence of the thinking or philosophy of a man as significant in 20th century history as Gandhi.
What is missing from this Autobiography is an historical perspective - siting the man in the India of his childhood, the England of his legal education, the South Africa of his emergence, and back again to the India he would help transform. What is missing is a critical appraisal of Gandhi's development and role.
Instead, we get a mixture of the mundane and the simplistic. He describes his angst at being encouraged to try meat over a one year period by a friend. He is coy about his sexual experiences, embarrassed by his marriage at 13 to a 13 year old girl. He talks about visiting a prostitute, he talks of his horror at scuffing someone's top hat. He portrays a young man completely at sea and addrift from others.
For a man of his time, this is perhaps honest, but it lacks depth of explanation and exploration. It is clawingly coy. You sense he struggles to understand people, to form relationships, you sense that, because of this, he is reluctant to introspect, certainly publicly. He is a man clearly absorbed in his own psyche but - because he lacks insight into others - he has limited perspective. He finds it easier to understand causes and ideas than individuals.
You sense a man who has problems fitting in - he hurries to buy the appropriate Western clothes when he arrives in England. On the one hand he seems desperate to conform, on the other he can be steadfast in his beliefs. He may struggle to fit in, he has no problem standing out. He is pursuing truth, he wants others - particularly in the West - to understand the truth of empire and racism, to get an honest perspective on their role and the hypocrisy of their lifestyles. But still, you just wonder how honest he is with himself.
Clearly, Gandhi has an intellectual and 'spiritual' struggle - he will advocate ascetic, non-materialist principles, but his is a privileged background (although he protests his family was poor). He describes stealing pennies from the servants so he can experiment with cigarettes, he describes accounting for every farthing he spends while studying law. He describes his pursuit of truth - explaining his religion as the pursuit of self-realisation, his deity as the embodiment of 'Truth'. But is this an honest account?
Overall, what you get are edited highlights of an ascetic life. There's an element of rationalising in his account - of smoothing things over so you get a straight line emergence of the man at the end of the book. It's not consciously dishonest, you just suspect it's not entirely honest ... that there are places he'd prefer not to go, or at least prefer to keep to himself.
The writing remains coy - perhaps self-effacing might be a more charitable description. When he describes his thoughts and responses to situations, you do sense he smoothes out the emotions and anguish, delivers a sanitised version of his truth on the matter. You feel you need more background, you need a more critical and clinical evaluation, you need a devil's advocate to get in there and argue with him. The book becomes one dimensional.
As an insight into Gandhi's thinking, perhaps the Autobiography does make some contribution, but, if you'll forgive the pun, you do wish there was more meat to it. If you want to find out about Gandhi and his role in the 20th century, read a biography or two, read up on the histories, come to the man more obliquely than this volume allows. The writing, here, is dated; it is idiosyncratic, it is just a touch quaint, a touch affected. This is a man who would bring iconic, inspirational authority to non-violent protest, a man who would put his freedom and his life on the line for others. The Autobiography seems trite by comparison - seems to lack the passion and energy the man could clearly evoke. An interesting adjunct to your knowledge and understanding once you've read a series of boooks on Gandhi's life and times - just don't start here.