Gandhi: a sympathetic report; Gandhi: A Memoir, by William L. Shirer. New York: Simon & Schuster. $12.95.

Jawaharial Nehru once told William L. Shirer that no one could ever write a "real life" of Mohandas K. Gandhi unless he was "as big as Gandhi." Subject to this limitation, Shirer hasm written one of the warmest, most sympathetic reports yet of the life of the Mahatma.

Shirer went to India in 1931, the only American correspondent assigned to cover the struggle for independence. Gandhi was 61, Shirer barely 27, when the first met. "His humble manner at first almost disconcerted me," Shirer writes. "Most of the political greats I had brushed up against . . . seemed intent on impressing you with the forcefulness of their personalities and the bondness of their minds . . . But here was the most gentle and unassuming of men, speaking softly and kindly, without the lightest pretense of trying to impress his rather awed listener."

Shirer asked Gandhi how he was able to rock the foundations of the British Empire. The reply was: "By love and Truth. In the long run no force can prevail against them."

Like Shirer, the reader would find it difficult to take this statement at face value at the beginning of the book. But by the end, Shirer certainly is convinced: "Satyagraha, his supreme achievement, taught us all that there was a greater power in life than force, which seemed to have ruled the planet since men first sprouted on it. "That power lay in the spirit, in Truth and love, in non-violent action."

Shirer follows Gandhi from the hot plains of India to the cool Himalayan resort of Simla, evoking the stark contrast between the luxurious life of the ruling class and the utter poverty of the people. He is with Gandhi in London to cover the Round Table Conference in September 1931 and he takes us behind the diplomatic scenes to show how the British government divided and ruled India.

More than 30 years have passed since Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. But for many Indians, Gandhi made modern Indian history, and Shirer concludes his newsreel of our country with a personal tribute to this great leader: "I count the days with Gandhi the most fruitful of my life. No other experience was as inspiring and as meaningful and as lasting. No other shook me out of the rut of banal existence and opened my ordinary mind and spirit to some conception of the meaning of life on this perplexing earth."

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