Louis Fischer, an American born Journalist, believed that Gandhi (1869-1948) was “the greatest individual of the twentieth century, if not the twenty centuries…” and even though this may have been the only statement of subjectivism he injected into his biography, it is enough to ascertain what he thought of the man. I approached this book in a somewhat skeptical manner, not knowing much about the life of Gandhi-apart from his belief in pacifism, and eager to discover why he is so highly regarded. I was in for an interesting read…
Fischer’s first chapter entitled ‘The end of the beginning’ only resonated with me once I had completed the biography. The title is profound in meaning, and multifaceted when pondered over. Gandhi’s death which was a result of an assassination by a Hindu fanatic, was not the end-but the start of something great. Gandhi had helped overcome many stereotypes in a racially segregated South Africa, he along with his disciples, also gained independence for India which was under British rule, and on an individual level, showed human beings that a life of peace is attainable if one manages to transcend their ego and desires. The cyclical nature of the chapters could represent the Hindu belief in reincarnation, which too, involves a cycle.
Gandhi is portrayed as the embodiment of complete Hindu spirituality, but one interesting point which reoccurs, was his statement: “I am a Christian, and a Hindu, and a Moslem, and a Jew.” Gandhi’s horizons couldn’t have been any broader, and his belief in plurality and diversity in religion emanated from his being “he was the most Christ-like person yet not a Christian,” Fischer remarks. The Mahatma (the title given to Gandhi, which is a term of respect) through his constant fasting and self restraint, was a living example of the Islamic concept of ‘Jihad’ which means to strive and struggle in order to attain peace. This is exactly what Gandhi did, he struggled with his ownself, in order to overcome his bodily desires and eventually attained peace of mind and soul. His love and admiration for fellow human beings caused him to live a life devoted to bringing peace between the Hindu and Muslim community in India, and his sense of justice compelled him to abhor the caste system which is deep rooted in Hindu belief. Gandhi was truly a great example for followers of all religious traditions, and represented the best in all that religion has to offer.
Fischer’s two first hand accounts with Gandhi break the monotony and tediousness which prevailed in some parts of the book, and provides a detailed insight into the life of the Mahatma. The authors journalistic experience allows him to refrain from blind adoration of the man, and instead offers some of his flaws and weaknesses, surprisingly describing some of his facial features as “ugly”. The description of Gandhi’s outward appearance as well as his inward state paint a vivid picture of him, leaving the reader with nothing but love and reverence for this little man.
The only short coming, which Fischer could not have helped, is that the book was written before the rise of Nelson Mandela, MLK and the like, and thus fails to tackle the influence Gandhi had and will have beyond India. Nevertheless, the author’s intimate knowledge of the man, coupled with his lucid and simple prose make a biography that can be read over and over again. This biography is an extraordinary account of how one man’s unconquerable spirit inspired a population to triumph over tyranny.