It’s generally foolhardy to write about Gandhi.

— Akeel Bilgrami

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SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THAT Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, and Ambedkar are India’s greatest novelists. In using the word “novelist,” I’m referring to a figure who gives our world back to us, a world whose significance we then spend years trying to grasp and measure. I mean someone who has an impact in both serious and popular domains. In that sense, the novelist is partly a figure of the imagination, produced by a mix of canonical judgment and contingent forces. The novelist is also, today, by definition global, and supremely exportable.

Just as other cultures have thrilled to artists of such disparate gifts as Dostoyevsky and Melville and Haruki Murakami, the educated Indian middle classes — especially the academic elite and the English-language news channels in Delhi — have devoted, in the last two decades, recurring spasms of attention to Gandhi, Nehru, occasionally to Subhas Chandra Bose, and more recently to B. R. Ambedkar. It’s as if they weren’t just political figures but imaginers of worlds. No novelist can compare with the flurry of excitement — and, often, controversy — they carry in their wake. Although, being dead, they can’t attend literary festivals, they visit them more than any living Indian author, in the form of books and discussions. Sometimes you feel that the literary festival — being a microcosm of a free-market global utopia — is their true home.

Of course, real novelists (whoever they might be) get no biographies or critical studies in Anglophone India. While one can’t help noticing that the present combination of mythologizing and hermeneutics directed at Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar springs from a mutation of the literary imagination, it’s a mutation for which the literary is largely redundant. This becomes even more apparent when we realize that the literary achievement of the one writer sometimes added to this pantheon — Rabindranath Tagore — is beside the point to the Anglophone class. Tagore’s biography embodies certain qualities that can be celebrated; his actual writing, with the exception of the national anthem and one anguished patriotic song, stays out of view.

Of the four political figures I’ve mentioned, three — Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar — were writers. (The fourth, Subhas Chandra Bose, who died mysteriously before Independence while trying to make a futile deal with the Axis powers, is remembered mainly for his militant opposition to British rule, and a life of courage and tragic misdirection.) Nehru, because of his prose style, is identified with sonority. His principal works as an author include the speech he made in 1947 (“when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” a beautifully expressed thought whose meaning remains vague), which Rushdie and Elizabeth West included in their 1997 anthology of largely Anglophone fiction, Mirrorwork; and there is the account he wrote in prison of his nation’s uniqueness, The Discovery of India (published in 1946). Ambedkar, the perspicacious leader of the “untouchables,” whose legacy has had an academic resurgence in the last decade, was the chief drafter of what for Anglophone Indians is a literary/moral text about whose significance they’re all in consensus — the Indian constitution, a work they invoke almost daily, and which very few of them have read.

Gandhi differs from these two in that he wrote originally in Gujarati, which might be why his works possess a certain unpredictability and idiosyncrasy, the second being a quality that’s almost entirely absent from a fundamentally homogeneous, high-minded Indian Anglophone discourse. Still, all three, in the eyes of the Indian intelligentsia, are engaged in the production of an overarching work that has had more value than any other for a quarter of a century now: India. What novelist can compete with those who have authored a text of such overwhelming importance?

The consequence of being transfixed by this work, “India,” is that several books on Gandhi come out every year. The reading of the Anglophone Indian middle class today consists at first of textbooks and guides to exam success; then, as its members approach maturity, of self-help books, newspapers, and (if they’re of an academic bent) lots of stuff on Gandhi and some of the others on the Indian Mount Rushmore I’ve already named. One of the positive offshoots of this ongoing trend, however, has been the recent publication of a “critical edition” of Gandhi’s An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, in the original, excellent translation by Mahadev Desai, with a new introduction and notes by Tridip Suhrud. The annotations provide alternative, more literal translations of Gandhi’s prose, where Desai may have changed the character of a sentence without necessarily wishing to alter its meaning. These sporadic interventions are good to have; occasionally, one wishes the original Gujarati word had been provided when a concept is being discussed passionately — for instance, the word “sacrifice,” to which Suhrud suggests “renunciation” as an alternative. (One wonders if tyag is the word Gandhi used.)

This book is still possibly the best place to encounter Gandhi. It contains, vividly, the record of a man working things out for himself. For one thing, Gandhi — unlike the inheritors of his legacy — didn’t have to deal with books about Gandhi. He had other things to think about. His reading, in contrast to today’s Indians, was liberated and creative, while his future (and the future of his country) was a conundrum. Nothing was a given for Gandhi; his progress was diffident, but his curiosity was voracious, his approach questioning and sometimes comically unimpressed (the last a characteristic he would put to memorable use in his mockery of King and Empire).

In Prime Movers (2018), a book on “twelve great political thinkers” from Pericles to Gandhi “and what’s wrong with each of them,” Ferdinand Mount describes Gandhi’s method: “[Y]ou found out truth as you went through life — or as Gandhi’s critics liked to put it, he makes it up as he goes along. Gandhi does not dispute this: ‘Truth is what everyone for the moment feels it to be.’” Presumably to distinguish this statement from the fleeting but ferocious convictions that lead to mob violence, Mount quotes the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami: “Truth for Gandhi is not a cognitive notion. It is an experiential notion. It is not propositions purporting to describe the world of which truth is predicated, it is only our own moral experience which is capable of being true.” As for Gandhi’s curiosity and reading (which are an integral part of this “moral experience”): as a student at the Bar in London, he was interested in religion both experientially and as a way of understanding culture, but he knew little about either his own or others’. Throughout, Gandhi is good at portraying how a consciousness of one’s own ignorance is not incompatible with intellectual excitement:

Towards the end of my second year in England I came across two Theosophists, brothers, and both unmarried. They talked to me about the Gita. They were reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation — The Song Celestial — and they invited me to read the original with them. I felt ashamed, as I had read the divine poem neither in Samskrit nor in Gujarati. I was constrained to tell them that I had not read the Gita, but that I would gladly read it with them, and that though my knowledge of Samskrit was meagre, still I hoped to be able to understand the original to the extent of telling where the translation failed to bring out the meaning. I began reading the Gita with them.

Gandhi then quotes lines from Arnold’s version that “made a deep impression” on him and “still ring in my ears”:

If one
Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire,
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds
Recklessness; then the memory — all betrayed —
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.

“It has afforded me invaluable help in my moments of gloom,” he goes on to say about the Gita. “I have read almost all the English translations of it, and I regard Sir Edwin Arnold’s as the best.”

What’s striking here — as it is in every page of My Autobiography — is Gandhi’s ability to give us the transitions in his reading and thinking (his discovery of the Gita through the English language, for instance) without adornment or too much commentary, to not rehearse what he thinks the reader values already but rather to test ways in which it might be possible to convey how things — books, people, events — begin to matter to oneself. A few paragraphs later he mentions the fact that he “met a good Christian from Manchester in a vegetarian boarding house,” evidently one of the many productive acquaintanceships he made in his quest for vegetarian food in London. This man points Gandhi in a different direction from Edwin Arnold:

“Do please read the Bible.” I accepted his advice, and he got me a copy. I have a faint recollection that he himself used to sell copies of the Bible, and I purchased from him an edition containing maps, concordance, and other aids. I began reading it, but I could not possibly read through the Old Testament. I read the Book of Genesis, and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep. But just for the sake of being able to say that I had read it, I plodded through the other books with much difficulty and without the least interest or understanding. I disliked reading the Book of Numbers.

But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” […] delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt’s “For a bowl of water, give a goodly meal,” etc.

Gandhi gives us a picture here of a world being created on the hoof. The man from Manchester comes across as both a Samaritan and a spiritual entrepreneur: a man from an industrial city in an industrial age, for whom Christianity is not just a faith but an enthusiasm. Gandhi’s own sentences move unexpectedly in response to the lack of fixity in his life and his friend’s: “I have a faint recollection that he himself used to sell copies of the Bible,” he writes; but, in the second part of the sentence, the “faint recollection” has, without adequate explanation, become fact: “and I purchased from him an edition containing maps, concordance, and other aids.” No sentence is pious: “I read the Book of Genesis, and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep.” The compression in that “invariably” is telling: it means he tried reading the Old Testament more than once. Gandhi repeatedly points out that he knows little, and yet he always seems to know enough to be a comparativist: lines from the Sermon on the Mount remind him of the Gita (which he first read in English in England) and a song by a Gujarati poet. Everything is in confluence, but there’s no clear point of origin to the various streams.

How different it is to read Gandhi writing about his reading than it is to read most books about Gandhi, where we have a familiar teleology, a beginning and end we’re already aware of! There are few readymade contexts in An Autobiography, few confirmations of what a life and the making of an Indian political leader should look like. Many of the moments described in it — his attempt to become a meat-eater; his admiration for the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount; other fitful developments — have long been canonical, like episodes in the life of a saint. But Gandhi’s own accounts of them remain provisional, like the time he lived in, and like the intellectual ethos that produced him and others like him.

What kind of ethos? The key lies in the term prayog, which Gandhi used in the title when the autobiography — a collection of the installments he’d written in the periodical Navjivan from 1925 to 1929 — was published in 1930. The term is translated as “experiments” in Desai’s 1940 translation. This word, more than any other, describes the world of Indians from the beginnings of the colonial project to well after it ended, and it implies why that period in India is most significant or memorable not because of the achievements and depredations of that project, or even the triumph of the freedom movement, but for these experiments Indians undertook. By “experiment” I think Gandhi means an openness to formative encounters (“truth”), whether they occur as texts, events, or people. The encounter is accompanied by an acknowledgment of the nature and implications of its impact. Gandhi’s readings, and discovery of, the Bible, the Gita, Ruskin, Tolstoy, even law books, are each encounters comprising this ongoing experiment, encounters that can’t be reduced, as we see from the language of the Autobiography, to remarks like: “He learnt such and such from Tolstoy and the Gita,” or “He admired Ruskin because…”

Tagore, temperamentally different from Gandhi and often in disagreement with him, is also shaped by this experimental ethos, this openness to the encounter. In his case, the encounters include his unsettling acquaintanceship with his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi’s acuity of perspective; his discovery of the English poet Thomas Chatterton converging with his discovery of the 15th-century devotional poets Chandidas and Vidyapati (just as there’s a simultaneity to Gandhi’s reading of Arnold’s translation of the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount); and his transformative revaluation of the fourth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, who was being discussed in educated circles in India and Europe in the 19th century because of William Jones’s 1789 translation of Shakuntala. According to Tagore himself, he knew little Sanskrit until he turned 14, and began to learn the language when he found the 12th-century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda among his father’s books, puzzling over a form of poetry that seemed to have no stanzas. He claims he was later electrified on first encountering these lines in Kalidasa: “Mandakininirjharashikharanam / bodha muhu kampitadevadaru” (“the breeze, moist with drops of the Mandakini, / makes leaves fall from the deodar trees”).

Tagore’s biographer Prashantakumar Pal says Tagore was actually taught Kalidasa by his tutor when he was 13, but the terms in which Tagore chooses to frame his memory in My Reminiscences is important. Tagore’s father, Debendranath, had his own accidental encounter in the early 19th century with a page from the Upanishads that had come loose and was flying about in the breeze, a text that would come to mean much for Debendranath and others (including Eliot) as they tried to formulate terms for the nature of the modern. These episodes parody, and are the opposite of, the “books that changed your life” paradigm we see in the weekend papers. Nor are they related to a passive imbibing of a colonial education (Tagore hated school; Gandhi was no lover of the classroom) or hard-headed nativist revisionism, which depends on already knowing what you must value in your heritage. What links all three — Gandhi and the Bible and the Gita; Tagore, the Vaishnav poets, Chatterton, and Kalidasa; Debendranath and the Upanishads — is an alertness to chance. A temperament for accidentality governs the “experiment.”

An important part of this experiment had to do with what they wore. Those who look to the cultural confluences of the 1960s, to what the hippies and “flower power” set began to wear amid the eruption of East-West psychedelia, in order to determine what a generation driven by romantic ideas of liberation might dress like, could go further back to Indians at the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th: Swami Vivekananda switching from the Western clothes he wore when he was the student Narendranath Dutta to saffron turban and Indian jacket or, often, to loose Bengali dhuti and bare-torsoed simplicity; the Mughal-inspired sherwanis and especially the round-collared jacket that Nehru adopted, later named the “Nehru jacket”; Tagore’s loose, flowing, shapeless, body-covering garment (the Tagore family spent tortuous moments trying to imagine what the appropriate dress for a modern Bengali might be); Ambedkar’s strategic black suit; the sari’s extraordinary evolution; the educated Bengali refining what was essentially rural clothing — the dhuti — into legitimate bourgeois attire; Gandhi’s abandoning of the barrister’s suit for the peasant’s white dhoti, which earned him Churchill’s irritable and elaborate sobriquet, “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer […] posing as a fakir […] striding about half-naked.” There is no binary, as between the 20th-century Japanese’s predominantly suited appearance and his “authentic” dress.

One is reminded, by this strange compulsiveness and heterogeneity, of what Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said of writing poetry in English in India in the ’70s: “We wanted to escape the language of skylarks and nightingales.” But this desire to “escape” didn’t take Mehrotra either to Hindi or to a more Indian-sounding diction in English; it made him look, as he created a language suitable for his poetry, to the Beats and Surrealists. Something equally defamiliarizing, rather than expectedly unconventional, was happening earlier with clothing. If one thing connected the various attempts at redefining what a modern Indian might wear, it wasn’t nationalism or a utopian idea of Indian dress, but relative austerity — in some cases, a pronounced austerity and simplicity that derived not just from the secular middle class’s renewed interest in idiosyncratic religious figures on the one hand and its engagement with socialism and Marxism on the other, but also from its imagining of a spiritual temper for modernity.

Gandhi recognized this temper in his encounter with the Gujarati writer Narayan Hemchandra when he was studying law in London. “He did not know English. His dress was queer — a clumsy pair of trousers, a wrinkled, dirty, brown coat after the Parsi fashion, no necktie or collar, and a tasselled woollen cap. […] Such a queer-looking and queerly dressed person was bound to be singled out in fashionable society.” Hemchandra isn’t a displaced provincial: “He had a boundless ambition for learning languages and for foreign travel,” and wants to visit America next. “But where will you find the money?” Gandhi asks him, to which Hemchandra says: “What do I need money for? I am not a fashionable fellow like you. The minimum amount of food and the minimum amount of clothing suffice for me.” Later, both Gandhi and Hemchandra are invited to meet Cardinal Manning, the archbishop of Westminster, whom Gandhi admired for the work he did to end the dock workers’ strike in 1889.

So we both called on the Cardinal. I put on the usual visiting suit. Narayan Hemchandra was the same as ever, in the same coat and the same trousers. I tried to make fun of this but he laughed me out and said:

“You civilised fellows are all cowards. Great men never look at a person’s exterior. They think of his heart.”

In what kind of context should we place this accommodation of austerity (“never look at a person’s exterior”) that’s so definitive of Indian modernity, and how should we trace its legacy? (Gandhi, of course, takes a cue from Hemchandra when he revises Jesus’s “Give unto Caesar” riposte upon being asked, after his meeting with King Edward VII, whether he could have dressed differently: “The King was wearing enough for both of us.”) But let’s look at where Gandhi places himself: “The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers. But for three generations, from my grandfather, they have been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawad States.” That is, they were administrators. Two pages later, Gandhi adds: “My father never had any ambition to accumulate riches and left us very little property. He had no education, save that of experience. At best, he might be said to have read up to the fifth standard.” Of his mother: “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness. She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meals without her daily prayers.” And: “My mother had strong common sense. She was well informed about all matters of State, and ladies of the court thought highly of her intelligence.”

The statement, “My father never had any ambition to accumulate riches and left us very little property,” is telling. It points to a significant aspect of the experiment of Indian modernity that Gandhi was part of, and which millions after him would be: the coming into existence of an educated — sometimes highly educated — middle class that wasn’t a class of landowners. Quite a few members of this class may have, in one sense or another, lost caste, as Gandhi had by crossing the “black water.” But this non-landowning class was marked not by caste or loss of caste alone (the “black water” episode is a turning point but also, eventually, an irrelevance in Gandhi’s life), but by education, self-critique, and the sort of “experiment” we find recorded in An Autobiography.

The creation by Indians of a non-propertied middle class has had far greater implications for the country’s history than Macaulay’s ambition to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” Its legacy becomes clearer after Independence, when the place of this class, in India and among Indians across the world, continues to consolidate itself, and has a particular tone and appearance different from, say, the educated elite in Pakistan, which was invariably landowning. The non-landowning educated class in India for decades maintained a Narayan Hemchandra–like position, until economic deregulation arrived in 1991: “What do I need money for? I am not a fashionable fellow like you. The minimum amount of food and the minimum amount of clothing suffice for me.” At the same time, it inculcated a cosmopolitanism and curiosity about the world it didn’t always have the means to act on (until the 1990s, the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act [FERA] only allowed Indians a tiny amount of foreign exchange when traveling abroad): “He had a boundless ambition for learning languages and for foreign travel.”

These predilections and often self-imposed restrictions gave to Indian modernity, especially to its domains of culture and education, an air of shabbiness. Gandhi is an early example, and an extreme one, of this moral ethos: for him, being a Middle Temple lawyer and “striding about half-naked” can’t be put down to political strategy alone. It’s part of a critical self-consciousness, once pervasive in India, that constantly questioned the nature of civility and civilization. It was as important as satyagraha or “non-violence” in overturning the values of a small set of imperialists as well as of native landowners.

Then there’s the “saintly” mother, who isn’t spoken about in terms of her educational achievements but of her “strong common sense,” and the fact that she was “highly thought of” for her “intelligence.” Through her, too, Gandhi establishes a practical and intellectual context that goes beyond recognized, institutional “colonial education.” This also comprises a legacy. It reminds me that, while my mother received no further education after her school-leaving matriculation certificate (she was haunted by this, and blamed it on her family as well as the bad times they’d fallen into), she had read perhaps more widely in Bengali literature than my father, and had an extraordinary capacity for acute literary criticism. Gandhi’s portrayal of his mother’s intelligence also made me think of my own mother saying of the woman who worked for years as a maid in our house, and who, besides her, brought me up: “She has a wonderful sense of humor and is more cultured than the women I meet at parties.”

No doubt these remarks — both Gandhi’s and my mother’s — risk being called naïve or condescending, but they are also political. They are part of the experiment of overturning the expectations of “colonial modernity.” It’s a politics that led to that other unprecedented experiment in democracy that’s been remarked on by Ranajit Guha and others, and, as Ferdinand Mount points out, is reiterated by Perry Anderson: “In India alone, the poor form not just the overwhelming majority of the electorate, they vote in larger numbers than the better off.” Not just the poor, as Ranajit Guha noted, but the illiterate, bringing into play value systems that are different but inextricable from ours. This is one part of the legacy that’s still at work, mainly because governments — including BJP-led ones — change periodically due to the exercise of the franchise by, and the so-called “wisdom” of, the poor and often the unlettered. (For the first time after Independence, this “wisdom” came into question on May 23, unless what’s at work is a God-like wisdom whose purpose isn’t immediately decipherable.)

The knowledge of the limits of colonial education always informed Indian writers and thinkers as a living force: Gandhi’s trouble with English, his account of his parents, Tagore’s hatred of school and education at home, his inability to finish his degree at University College London, Narayan Hemchandra’s deficiencies in the English language — all these are interconnected developments and choices, at once political and imaginative. The politics constitutes a paradox, so that a woman like Gandhi’s mother could stand as both a precursor and a counterpart to Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly (an exact contemporary of the degree-less Tagore), the first women graduates — from Calcutta University — of the British Empire, including Britain itself.

To the lay observer, it seems as if Gandhi’s reputation mutates subtly, in phases. The chameleon-like shifts between saint and charlatan, holy man, crank, and astute politician, existed from the start. After Independence, he began to be seen by some Indian intellectuals as a critic of modernity, a proponent of the homespun, the (in contrast to Nehru) anti-industrial, and the ecologically sound. Khadi, the form of cotton he urged Indians to produce for themselves, in a quest for self-subsistence (thus, the swadeshi or “made at home” movement), became the apparel in the 1960s and ’70s of intellectuals, artists, and politicized undergraduates, a sort of hallmark, in its rough texture, of both austerity and modernity. Curiously, at around the same time, the Indian government largely closed India to all but a small percentage of foreign investment, seeking to develop its own industry and market (something that, critics say in retrospect, stood it in good stead when, 17 years after deregulation, the world markets crashed in 2008 and the Indian economy seemed relatively unaffected).

Gandhi’s Luddite proclivities, as well as the left’s animosity toward the West (besides Nehru’s project of industrialization), marked India for 44 years after Independence, slowed down “development” to the “Hindu rate of growth,” and, some would say, protected India, its democracy, and its poor from the vagaries of the market. After globalization, when the very contradictions that made India both frustrating and sometimes comical became an integral part of its astonishing economic “miracle,” new metaphors were thrown up for the Indian boom, for its irreducibility and exuberance. The English-language magic realist novel was one of them; Bollywood was another.

Gandhi as metaphor, too, was subtly energized by India’s boom, moving from saint and eccentric to a species of the sort of life-force that seemed to characterize India’s new success. Ramachandra Guha, who has undertaken a large-hearted project whose aim is to give us a portrait of Gandhi that’s both exhaustive and affectionate, spans, himself, both post-Independence khadi-wearing India and the post-globalization ferment in his engagement with a figure who is now the subject of a considerable two-part biography. Guha began as an environmentalist, a discipline whose non-grandiose tone, in the decades before global warming, owed much in India to Gandhi, as he points out in Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914–1948 (2018): “I spent the first fifteen years of my career working on the history of Indian environmentalism, whose main actors were influenced by Gandhian methods of analysis, critique, struggle and construction.” Guha is now a historian; his Gandhi today is an arresting agglomeration of inconsistencies that, like India after globalization, is its own form of logic and persuasion:

A friend from his London days, who had followed his subsequent career closely, remarked in 1934 that “Gandhi is a problem. To Rulers and Governors he is a thorn in their side. To logicians he is a fool. To economists he is a hopeless ignoramus. To materialists he is a dreamer. To communists he is a drag on the wheel. To constitutionalists he represents rank revolution.” To this list we might add: “To Muslim leaders he was a communal Hindu. To Hindu extremists he was a notorious appeaser of Muslims. To the ‘untouchables’ he appeared a defender of high-caste orthodoxy. To the Brahmin he was a reformer in too much of a hurry.”

Guha here is rephrasing, in the way he puts this account together, an observation of E. P. Thompson’s about India that he once cherished: “[A]ll the convergent influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Moslem, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.” But there’s a difference in tone between Thompson’s statements, which are an attempt to characterize and acknowledge the kind of “experiment” that produced, and was embraced by, Gandhi, Tagore, and Narayan Hemchandra, and Guha’s elaborate riff on Gandhi’s “friend’s” remark from 1934, which has an odd triumphalism about it that comes close to what Perry Anderson named “the Indian ideology”: a point of view that is unvanquishable simply because it encompasses everything and can’t be pinned down, a way of thinking that (and this is something Anderson didn’t discuss) isn’t engendered by Hinduism or the ideals of the freedom movement as much as it is by India’s jubilant self-assessment after deregulation.

Guha offsets triumphalism with diligence, detail, and, as I said earlier, affection. He also reminds us in his preface that, while “previous biographies had relied largely on the ninety-seven volumes of Gandhi’s Collected Works […,] [a]s a biographer, I knew that one must go beyond the works or writings of one’s subject.” But Guha is aware of, and not immune to, the attractions of Gandhi’s prose, and he quotes the Indian critic Pattabhi Sitaramayya’s characterization of his style: “[S]hort sentences shot out like shrapnel in a feu de joie at a new-year parade.” Despite mention of the New Year parade, Gandhi’s prose doesn’t really celebrate anything: either himself, or India. The “shrapnel” analogy is apt, because it suggests dispersal rather than a wish to add things up; it hints at the makeshift nature of the experiment. Although biographers before Guha may have consulted Gandhi’s works exclusively, too few readers have. Publishers may have reached a consensus that it’s time to read books about Gandhi; but, even more, it’s time to read Gandhi.

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Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth, published in the United States in February by New York Review Books. He is also a poet, a critic, a musician, and a composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His new book of essays is called The Origins of Dislike.