JOHN Gunther’s two books, Inside Europe and Inside Asia sold in millions. The first sentence of the chapter on Gandhi in Inside Asia reads, ‘Mr Gandhi who is an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall and your father, is the greatest Indian since Buddha’.
I met the radical Louis Fischer only once. He knew Gandhi better than any foreign correspondent. He stayed in Vardha for a week in June 1942 and met Gandhi twice a day in the latter’s hut. He got on well enough with the Mahatma to suggest, as this book notes, that their next meeting take place in the air-conditioned environment of the Viceroy’s Palace. Gandhi was amused.
I spent a few minutes with Vincent Sheean in New York in October 1962 when he came to visit C. Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji, who was staying in my apartment. Sheean was present at Birla House on 30 January 1948 and describes in his book Lead, Kindly Light the sense of doom and gloom that overtook India after Gandhiji’s assassination.
The debate as to whether Gandhi was a politician among saints or a saint among politicians still excites strong adherents on either side. The Mahatma wins either way. The less complicated truth is this: Mahatma Gandhi awakened us from a long slumber. He inspired, he led and he cautioned. He did not seek publicity; publicity sought him. He reached out to history and history honoured him as a legend.
I meet Akbar frequently and our conversation is generally an eclectic Mix of the present the near-past and sometimes the longpast. One morning, talk veered towards another book on Gandhi.
The first query was obvious: Why another book when some 11,000 already exist? We were both however conscious that while Gandhiana continues to command a premium, interest in the Mahatma is diminishing in the eighteen to thirty-five age group. They are familiar, more or less, with Gandhi’s name, his saintly aura, his magnetic leadership, his fasts, his obsessions and even his fads. But this is largely surface knowledge. Only a very tiny percentage has probably read Gandhi’s extraordinary autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, a work so honest that it doesn’t leave room for anyone else to reveal anything more about Gandhi’s personal or political persona.
Moreover, the narrative stops in the late 1920s. We felt strongly that a new book that could resurrect Gandhi for another generation was an immediate need, and I am happy to say that this effort fills that gap perfectly. Akbar has an unusual eye for the telling incident, speech, conversation or anecdote that creates a political as well as a psychological portrait of a genius. For reasons outside one’s control, my own desire to contribute more was not possible, but I hope these thoughts etched in an introduction will encourage a wider audience.