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Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

Is it possible for one man to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings?

By Steve Weinberg / March 30, 2011

Great Soul Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India By Joseph Lelyveld Knopf 448 pp.

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While employed at the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld reported from South Africa, and then from India. Decades before, one of the world’s most famous individuals, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – better known as Mahatma (“great soul”) – had lived in both countries in the same consecutive manner. As a result, Lelyveld began thinking and writing about the complicated, consequential man, assassinated in 1948 at age 78.

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Now in his seventies, Lelyveld has written an unusual book, hoping to find the words to understand Gandhi, a man who in many ways, to be sure, was a saint – but a saint who sometimes contradicted himself and who pretty much failed to change the world in the ways that he wanted.

To call Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India a biography is to stretch that genre’s meaning. The book does not claim to cover all the important events and individuals in Gandhi’s life; its progression is not always chronological; and Lelyveld’s speculative passages undocumented by hard evidence are numerous. To call the book an extended essay is to stretch another genre’s boundaries, because normal essays do not go on for nearly 400 pages.

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Perhaps the best classification for the book is to call it a rumination, based on copious research and intellectual passion and an author’s search for the answer to this question: Is it possible for one individual to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings over a vast geographical territory?

Born in 1869 near the Arabian Sea in the vast land mass encompassing multiple languages and cultures now known as India, it seemed as if Gandhi’s future would be mapped out by his family, as was customary then. He was betrothed by his family at age six to Kastur Makanji; they married when Gandhi was 13 and became parents as teenagers. To some extent, Gandhi broke free of the imposed constraints, traveling to England at age 19 to study law. He became a lawyer in Bombay, but in 1893 his lawyerly vocation took him to South Africa, where he would remain nearly full time until 1914.

Many other men and women born in India resided in South Africa, and those exiles often received second-class treatment from the reigning Caucasians of Afrikaner Dutch descent, the same ruling class that treated South African blacks as subhuman.

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