The second volume of Guha’s major biography presents a familiar Gandhi, if in more detail, and erases his radicalism
In a well-known piece of whimsy, Jorge Luis Borges describes a map so detailed as to match in size the territory it represents. The map is mistaken for the land itself until bits wear out, exposing the reality underneath. The faithfulness of representation, Borges seems to be saying, can betray its subject by concealing and so displacing it. I was reminded of this warning when reading the thousand-plus pages of Ramachandra Guha’s account of Gandhi’s Indian career, which follows an equally lengthy volume devoted to his early years in Britain and South Africa.
Guha trained as an economist and his early work was on environmental issues and cricket, subjects he wrote about with elegance and originality. Turning to India’s political past in more recent years, his lucid writing has made him into a celebrity historian there. He is a prominent voice for tolerance, his biographical volumes dedicated to making Gandhi into a liberal icon for a new generation. This is an urgent enterprise in contemporary India, whose caste and religious politics Guha sees as being violently illiberal in character.
Gandhi spoke of protecting truth at the cost of life, and made its sacrifice the very essence of non-violence