Gandhi: Naked Ambition by Jad Adams

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Gandhi: Naked Ambition by Jad Adams

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the lawyer turned political and spiritual leader of the movement for India's independence movement.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-1849162104

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Until I read this book, Mohandas Karamchand (or Mahatma for short) Gandhi had always been a very shadowy figure. I was familiar with the picture of the loincloth-clad man who fell victim to an assassin's bullet shortly after Indian independence, but knew little more.

This book tells the full story admirably. Born in Gujarat in 1869 during the high noon of the British Raj, he trained as a barrister in London during the late Victorian era. After being so used to the commonly-seen pictures of him in later life, it is almost startling to see one of him as a dapper young man in his 20s in frock coat and wing collar. He undertook civil rights work in South Africa during the second Boer war, then returned to India and assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress. This was the stage at which he became a force to be reckoned with, and his campaign to obtain self-government and control of Indian government institutions made him world-famous. As a pioneer of satyagraha, or resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience, a philosophy founded on ahimsa or total non-violence, he inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

When he returned to Britain in 1931, shortly after being chosen as 'Man of the Year' by US 'Time' magazine, it was not as a lawyer, but as sole representative of the Indian National Congress at a Round Table Conference in London. As we see in another photo of him, this time bare-legged in his usual clothing alongside smartly-attired British and European men with hats and umbrellas in the English rain shows, he looked somewhat out of place. Irreverent East End children would shout after him, Gandhi, where's your trousers?, while when he was asked after meeting King George V whether he thought himself underdressed, he said that the King had enough on for both of us.

Comparisons are made between Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, in soliciting European support for his struggle in India which was waged as a campaign against injustice, in the same way that Mandela would do in his battle against apartheid many years later. It would be too easy to look back on him through rose-coloured spectacles. However, his views would have won him no admirers in Britain during the Second World War, when he seems to have been very ill-informed if not downright naïve. On one hand, he said that his sympathies were with the Jews, and that if he was Jewish and born in Germany he would challenge them to shoot him or cast him in the dungeon. Yet he admired Hitler, saying that he was not as bad as he was depicted, showed an ability that was 'amazing', and seemed to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed. During the battle of Britain in July 1940, he advised the British government to fight Nazism with non-violent arms, and invite Hitler and Mussolini to take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings…If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them. Unsurprisingly, the government replied tersely that this was a policy it was not possible for them to consider.

The culmination of his life's work came when Indian independence was conceded in March 1946 and the British Raj came to an end the following year. Ironically his own life was about to come to a violent end with the bullets of an assassin.

I finished this book with mixed feelings. Gandhi was certainly a tenacious fighter, prepared to put his life on the line by fasting to death if need be, to achieve his objectives. Looking back on his life and career from an Indian perspective, he was clearly a great man. Yet from the British point of view he was obviously an adversary to be feared. This biography is rightly objective about his strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging his achievements while not glossing over his faults, the criticism which he drew from those on his own side, or even his often high-handed treatment, bordering on cruelty, of his own family.

Our thanks to Quercus for sending Bookbag a copy for review.

If you enjoy this, for a general overview of the country may we also recommend The Story of India by Michael Wood, or for a picture of the nation in modern times, An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley.

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