To say that a man is a saint is to offer a justification for not being more like him. Although William Shirer’s affectionate memoir repeatedly compares Mahatma (literally “Great Soul”) Gandhi to Jesus Christ and to the martyred saints, it is Gandhi’s splendidly successful humanity that emerges. Next to Gandhi, the man of infinite patience, can be seen Gandhi, the skilled negotiator, the trained lawyer, the politician, the economist, the union organizer and even the sexual enigma. Rescuing him from a mythol-
ogy that would present him as a spirit lifted beyond humanity, Shirer makes us see Gandhi as one of us who fulfilled his mortal potential by expanding ours.
Shirer was the only American newspaper correspondent covering India when he met Gandhi in 1931. The young man of 27 quickly became a trusted friend of the 61-year-old Hindu leader. At the time Gandhi was struggling to wring concessions from the British while convincing his own group, the Congress Working Committee, that he was not making too many concessions. Shirer travelled with Gandhi for four
months, rejoining him for the autumn of that same year in London where the Round Table negotiations occurred. In that brief time, Shirer came to admire him in a way “that at times bordered on adoration . . Although he never saw Gandhi again, the last chapters of the* book carry us through Gandhi’s death in 1948 at the hand of a Hindu fanatic who thought he had sold Hinduism down the river.
The memoir form allows Shirer to escape the constraints of objectivity—so important to his work as an historian
(The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)—
enabling him to approach the truth of Gandhi, a truth that would slip through colder fingers. As Shirer acknowledges, truth was Gandhi’s key. (For this reason his passing references about similarities to Socrates seem more apt than the constant comparisons with Jesus; despite Gandhi’s ecumenism, he remained a devoted Hindu.) His great teaching, satyagraha, nonviolence, he conceived not only as a political program but also as the truth. What was this truth? Truth to oneself, to one’s ideals, certainly. But also the truth about the fundamental goodness of all people, held against strong evidence to the contrary, a truth to be made true through nonviolence, and incarnate in the bloodied bodies of Indians who dared to believe in their oppressors’ humanity. It is a difficult truth for, sadly, nonviolence as a political program is most necessary when it is unilateral.
Shirer cites Gandhi’s disciple and the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, as saying that no one could ever write a “real life of Gandhi unless he was as big as Gandhi.” Unlike other more academic works, Shirer’s book does not attempt to explain how Gandhi got that way. Shirer, instead, in simple and dignified prose, makes Gandhi live for us once again. And this means he makes us mourn anew the Great Soul’s passing.
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