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Saint and spinner: Denis Judd unravels the Mahatma myth

Rediscovering Gandhi by Yogesh Chadha, Century, pounds 20
The life of Mahatma Gandhi intrigued, baffled and inspired his contemporaries. Today it is no easier to arrive at the essential truth about a man whom the great radical journalist James Cameron called "one of the truly significant figures of the 20th century" and whom Winston Churchill sneeringly dismissed as "a half-naked fakir". Was he, as a police report concluded in 1915, simply "a psychological case", or a uniquely gifted politician whose consummate skills mobilised the Indian masses and tore the heart out of the British Raj?

Next week sees the 50th anniversary of the creation of India and Pakistan. In January 1998 it will be half a century since Gandhi's assassination. Given the current torrent of commemorative books and programmes, the publishers' claim that this is "the first major biography of Gandhi for over twenty years" is a touch too ambitious. Yogesh Chadha has set out to reclaim Gandhi "as a human being out of the many myths surrounding him. He had his failings and his favourites, but to suppress these weaknesses would be to undermine his strengths".

The biography is very readable and, given the astounding complexity and range of Gandhi's activities, manageable and accessible. The quotations are mostly well chosen, sometimes unfamiliar and rarely too long. Chadha employs a commendable variety of views and interpretations, and seems genuinely to be striving to uncover the truth. The turning-points of Gandhi's career are convincingly explained. His principles, or possibly his eccentricities, are fairly scrutinised - including his renunciation of sexual relations with his wife.

On this issue, Chadha quotes Gandhi's assertion that sexual intercourse was sinful save for procreation, and that abstinence had a higher purpose: "Without conquering lust, man cannot hope to rule over self, without rule over self there can be no swaraj (self-rule)". But he also reminds us of the more plausible theory that Gandhi's "attitude towards sex had emanated from the profound sense of guilt" he experienced as a result of making love with his wife rather than being with his father when he died.

There are failings in the book. The understanding of some of the imperial and British background is incomplete. The bibliography is brief, dated and omits some crucial works. The end-notes are unconventionally presented and hard to follow. Edwin Montagu, the reforming Secretary of State for India in the early 1920s, becomes "Montague" throughout. Gandhi's role in wrecking the draft constitution painfully negotiated in 1946 after the arrival of the British Cabinet Mission is seriously underestimated. The chapter on the plot to kill Gandhi is enticingly entitled "A Permissive Assassination" but signally fails to deliver new information.

Despite these, and other, reservations, Chadha's biography charts with some skill its subject's transformation from awkward, youthful mediocrity to political superstar. In many ways, Gandhi was good news for the Raj, despite his potential for mobilising the masses and his sheer cussedness.

Gandhi preached non-violent resistance, and not bloody revolution. He had a taste for parleying with viceroys rather than throwing bombs at them, and remained on good terms with almost all his chief British opponents - although the same could not be said about his relations with either the Muslim leader Jinnah or the pro-Japanese Subhas Bose.

Perhaps this is why his abrupt and shocking death moved so many to grief. Jan Smuts, for whom he astutely made a pair of sandals while imprisoned in South Africa for his civil rights campaign before the First World War, wrote "A prince among men has passed away". Mountbatten could be moved to tears at the recollection of his assassination, 25 years later. The veteran French socialist Leon Blum spoke for millions when he said: "I never saw Gandhi. I do not know his language. I never set foot in his country and yet I feel the same sorrow as if I have lost someone near and dear."