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A highly original, stirring book on Mahatma Gandhi that deepens our sense of his achievements and disappointments—his success in seizing India’s imagination and shaping its independence struggle as a mass movement, his recognition late in life that few of his followers paid more than lip service to his ambitious goals of social justice for the country’s minorities, outcasts, and rural poor.
Pulitzer Prize–winner Joseph Lelyveld shows in vivid, unmatched detail how Gandhi’s sense of mission, social values, and philosophy of nonviolent resistance were shaped on another subcontinent—during two decades in South Africa—and then tested by an India that quickly learned to revere him as a Mahatma, or “Great Soul,” while following him only a small part of the way to the social transformation he envisioned. The man himself emerges as one of history’s most remarkable self-creations, a prosperous lawyer who became an ascetic in a loincloth wholly dedicated to political and social action. Lelyveld leads us step-by-step through the heroic—and tragic—last months of this selfless leader’s long campaign when his nonviolent efforts culminated in the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing that ended only with his own assassination.
India and its politicians were ready to place Gandhi on a pedestal as “Father of the Nation” but were less inclined to embrace his teachings. Muslim support, crucial in his rise to leadership, soon waned, and the oppressed untouchables—for whom Gandhi spoke to Hindus as a whole—produced their own leaders.
Here is a vital, brilliant reconsideration of Gandhi’s extraordinary struggles on two continents, of his fierce but, finally, unfulfilled hopes, and of his ever-evolving legacy, which more than six decades after his death still ensures his place as India’s social conscience—and not just India’s.
“A revelation. . . . Lelyveld has restored human depth to the Mahatma.”—Hari Kunzru, The New York Times
“Lelyveld shows us Gandhi in tight close-up, and he places the man in various frames of reference—social, political and religious—that allow us to understand and appreciate him not as a plaster saint but as a flesh-and-blood human who wrote himself into history, and not only because of his shimmering vision of a more perfect world but also because of his sheer force of will.” —Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times
“Lelyveld brings . . . an intimate knowledge based on his years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in both South Africa and India and the exhaustive research he conducted with a rare and finely balanced sympathy. . . . The picture that emerges is of someone intensely human, with all the defects and weaknesses that suggests, but also a visionary with a profound social conscience and courage who gave the world a model for nonviolent revolution that is still inspiring.” —Anita Desai, The New York Review of Books
“Rather than focus on Gandhi’s chronology, Lelyveld slices through his life to understand his compulsions, read into his thought processes, and assess his actions and outcomes, maintaining a tone of admiring observation without tipping into hagiography or criticizing him with the wisdom that only hindsight can provide. . . . Lelyveld is a worthy interpreter of Gandhi’s varied life.” —Salil Tripathi, The Washington Post
“A noteworthy book, vivid, nuanced and clear-eyed. . . . Lelyveld brings to his subject a reporter’s healthy skepticism and an old India hand’s stubborn fascination with the subcontinent and its people.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, The New York Times Book Review
“A deeply insightful analysis of perhaps the most intriguing political leader of our time. A marvelous book.” —Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner in economics and author of The Idea of Justice
“Lelyveld shatters the attractive myth . . . of the brave little man in a loincloth bringing down a mighty empire.” —Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker
“Lelyveld is a determined researcher. . . . He succeeds in leaving us with a fuller picture of Gandhi as a leader and a man.” —Bill Williams, The Boston Globe
“Closely researched. . . . A sometimes wry but always clear-eyed weighing of Gandhi’s achievements against his goals. . . . Sobering but moving.” —Madhusree Mukerjee, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Great Soul is that rare achievement: a book that says something new about one of the most familiar figures of modern times. . . . Elegantly written, clear-eyed, and bracingly original, this is a magnificent biography of Gandhi’s conscience.” —T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The First Tycoon
“A revealing, original portrait. . . . Taking up a story already portrayed in countless books and films, Lelyveld constructs a fresh narrative. . . . He succeeds in painting Gandhi the spiritual leader as remarkably human.” —Christine Armario, Associated Press
“Lelyveld scrupulously refrains from apportioning either blame or praise. . . . He lays out the facts and leaves readers to summon up their own interpretations and reactions to them. . . . We might view the writing of this book as an act of salvation, for what person's legacy can ever fully bear the burden of the high honorific of a Great Soul without coming up short?” —Mirdu Rai, San Francisco Chronicle
“Gandhi’s story is one of the most inspiring in history, and Joseph Lelyveld proves himself equally inspiring in telling the story. This book is a brilliant and glittering match, brimming with—well, soul.” —Nicholas D. Kristof, coauthor of Half the Sky
“Meticulously researched. . . . Refreshingly candid. . . . Although Lelyveld focuses on the high points of Gandhi’s life, he attempts to show his human side by illuminating the trials, ambiguities and eccentricities of the man. . . . [A] fine work.” —Bharti Kirchner, The Seattle Times
“Lelyveld wrestles breathtakingly with the Gandhi-inspired conundrums on a high intellectual plane, with clear writing as a bonus.” —Steve Weinberg, The Christian Science Monitor
“Written with graceful elegance, Lelyveld’s intricate portrait of Gandhi’s conflicted character invites us past the common illusions about one of the twentieth century’s most momentous figures.” —David K. Shipler, author of The Working Poor
“Fascinating. . . . [A] sophisticated analysis. . . . Gandhi, even riddled with his foibles and failures, inspires awe. But, as Lelyveld observes, he demanded not reverence, but action.” —Alan Cate, The Plain Dealer
“By the time we put down this deeply resonant, even sonorous book, we can only begin to appreciate how difficult it must have been for Gandhi to live out his character, his persona and his destiny. . . . The most effective Gandhi biography thus far.” —Ananya Vajpeyi, The Caravan (India)