Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

(Book Review)

Why I Read this Book / My History With Gandhi

Like a lot of people, my primary knowledge of Gandhi was from the  1982 Richard Attenborough Gandhi (W).  It's a 3 hour movie that was shown to us at high school, in its entirety, not once but twice. One of my 10th grade social studies teachers showed it to us, and then one of my 12th grade social studies teachers also showed the whole thing to us.

In retrospect, watching this 3 hour movie twice does seem like a waste of valuable classroom time.  But that's in retrospect.  I didn't complain about it at the time.  (When my 12 grade social studies teacher started showing this movie, it never occurred to any of us to let him know we had already seen it in 10th grade).

And, actually, there's an argument to be made for movies as educational tools.  A good movie sticks in your memory in a way that a textbook or a lecture does not.  If my social studies teacher had lectured us about Gandhi, I probably wouldn't have remembered it.  But because the drama of the movie stuck in my mind, all these years later I remember  perfectly about Gandhi and Nehru and Jinnah and Amritsar and the partition of India, et cetera.

Since I've become an adult, I've also rented the movie several times over the years, and watched it again on my own.  (I included it in my top 10 movies of all time list).

In fact, for far too many years, virtually all of my knowledge of India came from Richard Attenborough's film.  But a thorough knowledge of that film has been enough to keep me up to speed in several conversations about Indian history.  (For example, when I spent a hiking trip chatting about Indian history with a Japanese professor of India back in 2005, I was able to keep up in that conversation solely because of my knowledge of the 1982 Ganhdi movie.)

I've been meaning to read a proper biography of Gandhi for ages now, and have put it off for far too long.
But then, while browsing the bookstores in Saigon, I saw this on the shelves and thought: "perfect!"

About this Book
Apparently this is the book that the 1982 movie was based on.  (According to both the publisher's blurb on the back cover, and according to Wikipedia).  I didn't realize this when I first picked up this book, but after so many years of watching the movie, I suppose it's fitting that I should read the book it's based on.
Just like the movie, the book starts out with a detailed description of Gandhi's assassination and funeral, and only then jumps back to look at his life.  (This must have been where the movie got that structure from.)
I also recognized some of the dialogue from the movie in this book.  (Again, this obviously must have been the source they were drawing from.)

This book was originally published way back in 1950, but it's still being sold in bookstores now.  (That's probably unusual for a biography.)

The author of the book, Louis Fisher, is someone I never heard of before, but apparently he led an interesting life himself--see his Wikipedia bio.

Louis Fisher had actually spent some time with Gandhi during Gandhi's life, and throughout the book he frequently makes references to his conversations with Gandhi.
The author fully inserts himself into the book in Chapter 23 of Part 2, which is entitled "My Week with Gandhi".
This is probably self-serving on Fisher's part, and occasionally it does come across like he's making too much of his acquaintance with Gandhi.  But on the plus side, it does also help to liven up the biography and add a personal touch to the narrative.
(Fisher also references conversations he had with Nehru and Jinnah in the book.)

The Review
Louis Fisher writes well (a journalist by trade) and this book is a pleasure to read.
In fact, I enjoyed it enough that I think it merits a place on the list of my Favorite Narrative History Books.
With a caveat--Fisher frequently breaks his narrative to editorialize about how great Gandhi is.  But if you can put up with a little of that, then the book on the whole is great story-telling.

The book covers the whole of Gandhi's life.  There are brief sections describing the wider history of India, but for the most part the focus is kept solely on Gandhi.  (For example, Subhas Chandra Bose (W) is barely mentioned in this biography, even though he was also very influential during these same years.)

Louis Fisher is a great admirer of Gandhi, and has very little critical to say about him.  I'm not expert enough to judge whether this is an omission or not.  It's possible that in real life Gandhi just left very little behind for the honest biographer to criticize.  (More on this in the sections below).

And that's really all I have to say about the book in general terms.
In specifics, I'll detail all my various thoughts down below.

Evaluation of Gandhi (as described by Louis Fischer)

The portrayal we get of Gandhi in Louis Fischer's book is of someone who was really too good for this world.
When you read a lot of history, you realize perhaps how rare men like Gandhi actually are.  History is full of selfish cruel people doing selfish cruel things.
Someone like Gandhi, who was so principled, and pure and honest, almost takes your breath away as you read it.

You wonder how he could possibly have been so good, and at the same time you lament that the rest of humanity can't live up to his example.

Gandhi is probably especially unique in the world of politics.
Gandhi didn't want to defeat his opponents.  He wanted to convert his opponents.  In his political campaigns, he never sought to take unfair advantage of his opponents, and he always trusted in the goodwill of his opponents.

But if an individual like Gandhi re-affirms your faith in humanity, unfortunately reading about the events that Gandhi lived through will shatter that same faith.
The religious hatred, riots, and massacres that took place during the partition of India and Pakistan are all recorded in this book, and they are difficult reading.  If Gandhi represents humanity at its best, the massacres that took place during the partition represent humanity at its worst.  It is shocking the evil that one human being is capable of perpetrating on another.
These massacres took place during the end of Gandhi's life, and it is depressing to think that Gandhi spent his whole life preaching non-violence in India, and then these horrible massacres happened anyway.

The Politics of Gandhi
During my student days, I attended some non-violence training seminars prior to mass protests.  (At the protests recounted here and here.)

One of the things I remember about these training sessions is the debate over exactly what "non-violence" means.
I had previously had a very technical definition of non-violence.  (Non-violence means not using any physical force).  But the workshop organizers encouraged us to think about whether being verbally abusive or hateful was congruent with a philosophy of non-violence.

I was reminded of this when reading about Gandhi's politics, and compared it to the politics of today.

Gandhi believed not only in technical non-violence, he believed in showing love and respect to your opponent.
For example, when Gandhi was invited to talks with the British Viceroy, many Indians objected to the idea of meeting with the enemy.  Gandhi responded:

"We may attack measures and systems," Gandhi replied.  "We may not, we must not attack men.  Imperfect ourselves, we must be tender towards others and be slow to impute motives..." (p.199)
It made me think about the political climate in the US today.
Although many protesters today are technically non-violent, we still fall into the trap of personally attacking men instead of attacking measures and systems.
And I (on my this blog and on my twitter account) have been as guilty of this as anyone.
But after reading this biography, I begin to wonder if we should follow Gandhi's example, and stop the personal attacks against Republicans and Trump.

A couple months ago, when reading about how Kim Davis was being sued by same-sex marriage advocates, I blogged about how kicking Kim Davis when she was down was incongruent with Gandhi's philosophy of loving and respecting your opponent.
That feeling of bonhomie lasted about a day or two, I think, and then I was back on Twitter saying awful things about Trump and the Republicans.

As inspired as I was by Gandhi, it's difficult to follow his example consistently.  To actually be like Gandhi would entail getting control of your emotions.  And few people manage to do this.

But I will try to be a better person in the future.

Gandhi and His Critics

I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Gandhi's biography, and he commented, "Oh really?  One hears so much negative stuff about Gandhi nowadays, I wonder what the biography says."

I thought this was interesting.  Surely the overwhelmingly amount of stuff you hear on Gandhi is positive, right?  The man is one of the greatest heroes of the modern world.

But maybe in this day and age, everyone's a contrarian.  And everyone loves reading click-baity articles about how this person you'd been told to admire admire really turned out to be awful.  (See, for example, The Real Mahatma Gandhi by everyone's favorite contrarian Christopher Hitchens.)

There have always been a number of critiques of Gandhi from the Right, but I've never been concerned with that.  They're not my tribe.   (But, if anyone wants to see an example of a critique of Gandhi from the Right, see Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: Was Gandhi for Real?)

It is the critiques of Gandhi from the Left that I'm more sensitive to.

To me, the two most serious criticisms from the Left are:
1) Gandhi was a member of the bourgeoisie, and only concerned with bourgeoisie interests.  (Chris Harman was of this opinion), and
2) Gandhi was a racist, and didn't believe blacks were equal to Indians.

Louis Fischer doesn't address either of these criticisms directly.  He appears to be completely unaware these are even issues.
However, since Fisher's time, Gandhi's comments on black people have been widely reported.  (See Washington Post Article Here).

And yet in Fischer's book, Gandhi devotes much of his time and energy fighting against racism.  Much of this is in the context of India (Gandhi spent much of his life trying to end discrimination against untouchables) but Fisher records that Gandhi was also concerned about black people in America and South Africa.

So how to make sense of the racist Gandhi with Fischer's clearly anti-racist Gandhi?
My best guess (and it's only a guess) is that Gandhi must have evolved over time.
Fischer clearly records that on other issues (pacifism, independence) Gandhi evolved.  So it's reasonable to think that the same thing might have happened with his racial views.  All of the damning quotes appear to have come from Gandhi's early period in South Africa, and so probably do not represent the older Gandhi.

Fischer records how Gandhi evolved on the question of intercaste marriages.

"From 1921 to 1946 Gandhi had gone full circle: from utter disapproval of intercaste marriages to approval of only intercaste marriages" (p.338)
And Fischer records that Gandhi was very concerned about the persecution of black people.  When Fischer visited Gandhi in 1946, he records that...

Again he talked at length about the persecution of coloured races in South Africa.  He inquired about the treatment of Negroes in the United States.  "A civilization," he said, "is to be judged by its treatment of minorities. " (p.427)
As far as the critique that Gandhi was only concerned with the bourgeoisie, this is also thoroughly rejected in Fischer's portrayal.  Fischer shows Gandhi as almost a proto-socialist (although Gandhi himself would have rejected that label).

Connections With Other Books I've Read
From the 1982 movie, I had known that Gandhi started his political life in South Africa.  But I hadn't realized exactly how much of his life.  Louis Fischer says Gandhi spent 20 years in South Africa!
As it happens, those same years (1893-1914) were the exact same years that The Scramble for Africa was happening, as covered in Thomas Pakenham's book.
Some of the same characters and events pop up in both books (e.g. The Boer War, Joseph Chamberlain).
In his book, Thomas Pakenham wrote a lot about the politics of South Africa, but I don't remember Gandhi's name ever popping up once.
I don't blame Thomas Pakenham for this.  (In covering 30 years, and the politics of 2 continents, he can't possibly mention everything.)
But... it is an interesting reminder of how limited in perspective any one history book is.  In reading Thomas Pakenham, you'd never know that during the exact same time as his narrative, one of the first modern large scale non-violent protest movements was being launched in South Africa.

Churchill's disdain for Gandhi and for the Indian independence movement was something that I previously encountered in The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon.

The 1857 Mutiny, although it was before Gandhi's time, is referenced several times in this book as an example of what how bad things could have gotten in a worst case scenario.  Among other books I've read, the 1857 Mutiny was described in Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser.  (Although, typically, was covered irreverently by Fraser.)

The Amritsar Massacre (which Fischer covers on pages 184-188) was referenced explicitly by Orwell's characters in Burmese Days, and was apparently very much in Forster's mind in A Passage to India.

Gandhi engaged in a correspondence with Leo Tolstoy, which is described in this biography.
In the course of describing that correspondence, Louis Fischer inserts his own opinion that War and Peace is "probably the world's greatest novel" (p.96)
Gandhi is recorded as reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a South African prison.
During his week with Gandhi, Louis Fischer records Gandhi as expressing an interest in Upton Sinclair.

Comparing the Book and the Movie
I mentioned above that this is apparently the book the movie was based on, and much of the movie's dialogue can be found in this book.

The movie is not entirely faithful to the book, and after reading the book, I've discovered just how much the movie switched around, glossed over, cut out, and even invented.

I don't blame the movie for any of that.  I understand that in order to transition from a biography to a Hollywood movie, certain narrative choices have to be made.

Nonetheless, as media consumers, it's good for us to be aware of what exactly Hollywood is doing to the historical record, so perhaps it's instructive to examine where the movie differs from actually history.

I can't possibly go through and red-line the whole movie, but I'll pick one part of the movie as an example of the kinds of adaptations that are being made.
I'll just examine parts of the South African campaign against registration (Youtube).

The movie is rolling a number of separate issues and campaigns into one.  In reality, the meeting at this hall was only to address the fingerprinting and registration issue.  The law invalidating Hindu and Muslim marriages would not come until later, and so could not have been addressed at this meeting.
A number of  the comments shouted out by the crowd do come verbatim from Fischer's biography, but they were comments made at preliminary committee meetings,and not at the big meeting.  During Gandhi's big speech at the hall, Fischer records no back-and-forth with the crowd.
The British Police Officers were apparently not at the meeting at all.

The following scene in the movie, of Gandhi burning registration cards and being beaten by British policeman (Youtube), is entirely fictitious.  None of this ever happened.

Gandhi was rounded up and jailed with a number of Indians who refused to register, but there was no dramatic scene of Gandhi burning registration cards.
Fischer records an incident on August 16, 1908, in which the Indian community did hold a demonstration and burn a number of registration cards, but  Gandhi was not there, and there was no confrontation with the policemen.

Throughout the entirety of Fischer's biography, there is no scene in which Gandhi is beaten by policemen as depicted in the movie above.  Gandhi was beaten by various mobs while in South Africa (once by the white settlers, and once by other Indians who were angry at him for compromising with the government), but Fischer never records Gandhi being assaulted by British police as in the movie.

Knowing that this scene is entirely fictitious, it makes me now feel smugly superior to all the Youtube commentators who are writing how this scene proves how wonderful Gandhi was.  And yet, a few months ago, I would have been among them.
For what it's worth, the scene is in keeping with Gandhi's philosophy.  This is an example of the non-violent philosophy Gandhi preached.  But unfortunately history has left us with no real-life dramatic confrontation of Gandhi against violent South African policeman, so one had to be invented, I suppose.

Other Notes
* Everyone knows about the connection between Gandhi and the American Civil Rights Movement.  (Martin Luther King and others explicitly acknowledged Gandhi as one of their inspirations).  But I wonder if this biography in particular contributed to that connection.  After all, this book was published way back in 1950, so it's conceivable that it could have been read by people involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  And this book, with its detailing of Gandhi's campaigns and his victories, seems like a  perfect blue-print for anyone interested in non-violent protests.

Video Review
Youtube Video here and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on India

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