THE LIFE OF MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI seems to have had four themes, and the Mahatma dwelt on each of these, throughout his life, for different lengths of time and with varying amounts of emphasis. The four themes were Hindu-Muslim unity, the eradication of untouchability, the ideal of social service and the cultivation of non-violence (ahimsa). Seen as a structure with these themes, the political biography of Gandhi becomes a sort of opera— integrated, majestic, complex, extended, dramatic and with an overwhelming mood of pathos, even tragedy. It is important to keep in mind the operatic nature of this life, because only then do individual episodes in it make sense, and only then can we appreciate the astonishing extent to which its protagonist (Gandhi, the political actor), who was also its author (Gandhi, the tireless teller of his own story), had a composite vision of how he was to live and how his goals were to be realised.
In his new biography, Joseph Lelyveld reads the political career of Gandhi as though it were a piece of music. Gandhi's life-history became, through his own unique genius—at once historical and artistic—a historic life and a work of art. Lelyveld sets himself the task, not of mere narration, not even of reconstruction, but of composition, in the musical sense: creating the complete notation of the opera that was the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Not everyone can read music, and not everyone can hear the music as it would sound if all the notes on the page were played aloud. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India demands as much effort from the reader as it has clearly taken from its writer. 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.
Ramachandra Guha, who is currently working on his own two-part biography of Gandhi, some years ago wrote an essay titled, 'Why South Asians Don't Write Good Biographies, and Why They Should'. They write plenty of history, literature and hagiography, argued Guha, but somehow miss the genre that lies at the intersection of these three forms. Gandhi—like his peer Rabindranath Tagore—has been the subject of numerous biographies in the six decades since his death in 1948, by Indians, Britons and Americans. The Frenchman Romain Rolland wrote a biography as early as 1924, when Gandhi was only 55 years old. But it is Lelyveld who I think produces the most effective Gandhi biography thus far (we will have to wait another three or four years, at least, for Guha's version to appear). And the reason for this, I suspect, is not only that Lelyveld has lived and worked as a journalist in India and South Africa, the two countries where Gandhi spent most of his life; not only that Lelyveld has a personal connection with India through his brother David Lelyveld, a scholar of Urdu, and his sister-in-law Meena Alexander, a poet; not only that Lelyveld has trawled the archives, mastered the vast Gandhi literature, and travelled to every big and small place that Gandhi visited on what Lelyveld calls "both subcontinents".