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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser