Gandhi: Naked Ambition

Gandhi: Naked Ambition, by Jad Adams, Quercus £20, FT Bookshop price: £16.00

A section of the popular Bahri Sons bookshop in New Delhi’s Khan Market is devoted to books about Mohandas K Gandhi, India’s liberation leader. Now, 62 years after the Mahatma’s death, yet more books are about to be added to its well-stocked shelves. Ramachandra Guha, a Bangalore-based historian and author of India after Gandhi, is writing a two-volume biography, while former New York Times editor Joe Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi is to be published next year.

Jad Adams has got in there ahead of such distinguished rivals with his readable and provocative Gandhi: Naked Ambition. A British historian and research fellow at London University’s School of Advanced Study, Adams has already published books on Rudyard Kipling, as well as on India’s ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Here, he focuses on Gandhi’s personal and political contradictions in a chronological account of his life. He begins with Gandhi being married off at the age of 13, when he was a not particularly promising student in Gujarat, and ends with the body of one of the world’s most celebrated advocates of non-violence being drawn by 200 uniformed servicemen in a state funeral in Delhi.

This 300-page biography is likely to be noted for what it lays bare of Gandhi’s sex life. Adams strips away Gandhi’s saintly aura and explores the duality between his grand vision of an independent India and his fastidiousness with regard to his vegetarianism, clothes and sexual abstinence. Gandhi may have secured independence, have been India’s most famous leader and promoted principles of non-violence that have retained their global appeal, but Adams suggests that Gandhi’s preoccupation with sex, a cultivated pauperism and emphasis on personal perfection were wasteful, indulgent distractions.

Adams portrays Gandhi as a man who was severe on himself and to those closest to him. His relationship with his children was blighted by his disapproval of their marriage choices, his commitment to asceticism and his strong advocacy of celibacy, or brahmacharya, in marriage.

His ashram practices cost him some popularity; indeed his sexual mores might have tripped up his leadership of the liberation movement. Adams suggests that Gandhi jeopardised his political goals with these personal experiments. He would frequently bathe and sleep naked alongside young women other than his wife. Sometimes his bedmates were relatives and, in the last years of his life, as young as 19. Adams explains this intimacy with women as part of a deliberate trial to resist the temptation of the flesh. Many, including India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, appear to have warned Gandhi against this repudiation of sexual needs.

The subtitle “Naked Ambition” characterises a man who dressed up and then stripped down in order to fight imperialism. Gandhi’s metamorphosis from his birth in 1869 to his assassination in 1948 is reflected in the way he used dress – both to get on good terms with British rule and to gain popular appeal with the Indian masses. At one stage, he favoured the status of Parsi dress; he later elected to wear European clothes during his years in the UK and South Africa, only to adopt khadi, or homespun wraps, in his campaign to wean India off foreign textile imports. The loincloth, or dhoti, was to become his abiding image. Clearly, these eccentricities also helped build his image among his followers. “Saint Gandhi” was acclaimed as Time magazine’s man of the year in 1930. Yet he deeply frustrated others, not least his principal adversary, the British. One vexed viceroy, Lord Willingdon, said: “Gandhi is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde ... While he may have his saint-like side, on the other he is the most Machiavellian bargaining little humbug I have ever come across.”

Visitors to Delhi’s memorials to Gandhi – the place of his assassination and his cremation site – are given little hint of the father of the nation as a humbug, let alone an eccentric. Likewise, Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed 1982 film Gandhi lionised him as a lawyer-come-statesman with right on his side. That is how he is remembered by the state, and by the world at large.

While Gandhi’s reputation has eclipsed his oddities, they have been well chronicled nevertheless: take Nirmal Kumar Bose’s account of time spent in Gandhi’s ashram, My Days With Gandhi and psychologist Erik Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origin of Militant Non-Violence, for example. British writer Patrick French most recently courted controversy in India with Liberty or Death, a book that depicted Gandhi unflatteringly as a wily politician whom few of his peers – Churchill, Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah – viewed as a saint. In fact, Gandhi wrote about them himself in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

Just as Gandhi tested himself with fasting and celibacy, Adams shows that his political vision, too, was tested by his own intellectual limits. When in South Africa in the first decade of the 20th century, Gandhi campaigned narrowly for the rights of its Indian community. He later became an inspiration for Nelson Mandela, but Gandhi had never sought the freedom of the black population at large. On his return to India, he campaigned for better treatment of the “untouchables”. Yet he appears to have been rigidly opposed to some marriages in his family outside its caste or religion.

His non-violence doctrine had its limits too, the biographer shows: it was ill-equipped to address the aggression of Nazi Germany and Japan. He wrote naively to Adolf Hitler, suggested Britain surrender itself to German occupation, and avoided commenting on the atom bomb.

Some of Adams’s sharper criticism lies, rightly, in analysis of Gandhi’s political outcomes. Adversaries claimed that as Congress party leader, he put religion before politics, promoting a Hindu-dominated state over one more accommodating of the Muslim minority, and that he emphasised his religious observances over any desire to govern. The awkward dynamics between Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah at the end of British rule are famously the subject of debate. But Adams argues that distrust between Gandhi and the secular Jinnah, as much as Gandhi’s willingness to risk communal violence, precipitated partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan.

This biography reminds us that despite his timeless message, Gandhi was still a man of his age. Adams’ main achievement is to rebalance an idealised image with his arcane habits and the messy, turbulent politics towards the end of British rule. By independence, Gandhi was in eclipse, only for his example to shine again in death.

James Lamont is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.