Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Strug - By Joseph Lelyveld


THE MAHATMA had been gone for half a century, but there were still Gandhis at the Phoenix Settlement, outside Durban on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, when I visited there the first time in 1965. A little boy, identified as a great-grandson, toddled across the room. He was living with his grandmother, widow of Manilal Gandhi, second of Gandhi’s four sons, who’d stayed on in South Africa to edit Indian Opinion, the weekly paper his father had started, and thereby keep alive the settlement and its values. The patriarch had chosen to be father to a whole community, so he turned the farm into a kind of commune where he could gather an extended family of followers, European as well as Indian, nephews and cousins, and, finally, with no special status, his own wife and sons.

I was not a pilgrim, just a reporter looking for a story. By the time of my visit, Gandhi had been dead for nearly eighteen years, Manilal for nine, and Indian Opinion for five. There wasn’t a lot to see besides the simple buildings they’d inhabited. On one of them, the brass nameplate still read “M. K. Gandhi.” The great work of racial separation—what the white authorities called apartheid—had already begun. Small Indian plot holders, who’d once lived and farmed among Zulus, now crowded onto the settlement’s one hundred acres. I wrote about the visit in a mournful vein, noting that Indians and other South Africans no longer believed that Gandhian passive resistance could accomplish anything in their land. “Passive resistance doesn’t stand a chance against this government,” a trustee of the settlement said. “It’s too brutal and persevering.”

If my next assignment as a foreign correspondent hadn’t been India, where I lived for a few years in the late 1960s, that afternoon might not have stuck in my mind as a reminder of a subject to which I’d need to return. For me the South African Gandhi would always be more than an antecedent, an extended footnote to the fully fledged Mahatma. Having looked at the green hills of Africa from his front porch, I thought, in the simplifying way reporters think, that he was the story.

The maelstroms of India could obscure but never dislodge that intuition. The more I delved into Indian politics, the more I found myself pondering the seeming disconnect between Gandhi’s teachings on social issues and the priorities of the next generation of leaders who reverentially invoked his name. Often, in those days, these were people who’d actually encountered the Mahatma, who’d come into the national struggle fired by his example. So more than a patriotic ritual was involved when they claimed to be his heirs. Yet it was hard to say what remained of him beyond his nimbus.

An occasion for asking such questions occurred with the approach of the one hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1969. Setting out to report on the remnants of Gandhi’s movement, I followed Vinoba Bhave, his last full-time apostle, as he trudged through the most impoverished parts of Bihar, then as now among the poorest of Indian states, trying to persuade landlords to cede some of their holdings to the landless. Vinoba collected deeds to thousands of acres of barren, untilled, and untillable land. The Mahatma’s aging protégé seemed stoic, if not tragic, as he saw his doomed mission through to its largely inconsequential end.

“He became his admirers.” That’s Auden on Yeats. Three decades ago V. S. Naipaul used the line to characterize the decline of Gandhi’s influence in his last years, when he was most revered. The combination of piety and disregard—hardly unique to India—lasted as a cultural reflex, surviving the explosion of India’s first nuclear bomb.

Over time and at a distance, my experiences of South Africa and India ran together in my mind. Gandhi was an obvious link. I found myself thinking again about the Phoenix Settlement, to which I returned twice, the second time after it had been burned down in factional black-on-black violence accompanying the death throes of white supremacy, only to be restored with the blessing of a democratically chosen government eager to canonize Gandhi as a founding father of the new South Africa. I then found myself thinking about Gandhi himself, wondering how South Africa helped to form the man he became, how the man he became in South Africa struggled with the reality of India, how his initiation as a political leader on one side of the Indian Ocean foreshadowed his larger disappointments and occasional sense of