Top positive review
Irreverential and compelling
on 3 February 2014
As a biographer, the first few instances Adams passing value judgements and pat psychoanalysis on Gandhi's private eccentricities is somewhat irksome, but in this irreverence he pares down the populist figure of Mahatma totally and with every grand political gesture, the glimpse of a private obsession gets us back to Gandhi, the man. Alternating between the public/private as Gandhi's canvas of action becomes larger, Adams' has a parallel, uproarious narrative of India's independence and partition written in, morphing this unsuspecting biography into a sweeping political epic with a graph that conveniently rises and climaxes with Gandhi's rise and ultimate demise. Under Adams' pen Gandhi is like a William Boyd hero or a Forrest Gump-esque clumsy genius who manages to interact and exasperate all the influential 20th century figures: Tolstoy, Hitler, Churchill, Mussolini, Chaplin, Nehru with many other political juggernauts. He trailblazes through in his own deranged but super-certain manner from a small-time unsuccessful lawyer never losing an opportunity given to him, and growing from strength to strength, with private experiments in morality at full-speed.
While piecemeal by piecemeal Adams constructs Gandhi from a lawyer to an international icon, he does many brave things that other biographers would have foiled differently: he exposes his failure as a father and a family man, his almost farcical reliance on fasting to manoeuvre political stalemates, and his convenient and wavering ideals. Yet his shrewd genius gets as much footage: his adeptness at skirting straight political questions, his impact on the masses and his eye for staging the perfect propaganda (I almost punched in the air with Adams' description of the Salt March). In his later years, his degeneration to an idiosyncratic mass-icon completely out-of-sync with the complex political realities of nation-creation fills you with gloom as the memory of his lucid, driven times a few pages back is too fresh. By letting us into the accounts of those surrounding him, Adams uses a very successful device of turning the more conventional, reality-anchored politicians and family members of Gandhi as reader surrogates whose reactions transport you right next to them as they are comforted and angered by Gandhi in equal measure.
I revelled in all the political detail and particulates and in the way Adams accords respect to the actions and reactions of other players erecting the changing nation and tolerating the changing Gandhi. The context-setting has brevity enough to never lose itself in the granularities and deliver the two larger arcs of a country-in-transition and hero-forever-in-transition grippingly.
And Gandhi emerges as a totally new kind of a hero through this biography: a man with such agency and such colour who in his own contrived manner kept on trying to connect his physical state with the political future of his country. As a self-fashioned "moral-supremacist" and a "metaphysical warrior" of sorts, witnessing a summary of all his experiments with sex, intimacy, diet and then his pathological need to record every whiff of his doubts and uncertainties, never really overcoming them and moving on after some convenient self-justification: it's like an amped-up version of all us mortals out there who want to chisel a better, more refined version of themselves every morning when they wake up. Thanks to Adams, you have the illusion of experiencing the life and times of this hyper-engaged individual who happened to impact the world.