Even in his lifetime the legend of Mahatma Gandhi had grown to such proportions that the man himself can be said to have disappeared as if into a dust storm. Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography sets out to find him. His subtitle alerts us that this is not a conventional biography in that he does not repeat the well-documented story of Gandhi’s struggle for India but rather his struggle with India, the country that exasperated, infuriated, and dismayed him, notwithstanding his love for it.
At the outset Lelyveld dispenses with the conventions of biography, leaving out Gandhi’s childhood and student years, a decision he made because he believed that the twenty-three-year-old law clerk who arrived in South Africa in 1893 had little in him of the man he was to become. Besides, his birth in a small town in Gujarat on the west coast of India, and childhood spent in the bosom of a very traditional family of the Modh bania (merchant) caste of Jains, then the three years in London studying law are dealt with in fine detail and with a disarming freshness and directness in Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Lelyveld’s argument is that it was South Africa that made him the visionary and leader of legend. He is not the first or only historian to have pointed out such a progression but he brings to it an intimate knowledge based on his years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in both South Africa and India and the exhaustive research he conducted with a rare and finely balanced sympathy.