Jad Adams’ new Gandhi biography is an incompetent collage — it’s not even salacious, complains Tridip Suhrud
GANDHI HAS remarkable ability to attract bad biographies. This in some measure due to the large corpus of his own writings and equally large biographical and archival sources available on his life and times; it’s also due to a widely shared belief among Gandhi biographers that knowledge of Gujarati, a language in which he did most of his writings is completely dispensable.
But, very few biographies are as deeply flawed as Jad Adams’ attempt. As a professional biographer and an independent historian Adams’ attention to detail is abysmal. He informs us that Gandhi wrote two autobiographies; Satyagraha in South Africa, a chronicle of the movement of Indian people in South Africa is by no stretch of the imagination an autobiography. History and autobiography are two different literary and intellectual endeavours, the nature of self that is scrutinised in both stems from a different philosophical ground. He also tells us in passing that it was Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade) and not Mahadev Desai, who translated Gandhi’s autobiography into English! These should not be overlooked in a biography which claims to examine the nature of Gandhi’s ‘Truth’. Adams equates Truth with factual veracity, but when the narration is about someone’s soul, the Truth is not only about facts. Adams clearly has very little understanding of the intertwined nature of Gandhi’s quest.
For Adams, Gandhi’s spirituality and politics are unrelated, which allows him to make sweeping generalisations. He states, “The ambition was not fairness for labourers, or Indian independence — these were transitory demands. Gandhi’s objective was nothing short of spiritual perfection.” Only someone who understands neither the nature of politics nor of spiritual quest in Gandhi would make such a statement and proceed to make a book out of it. And yet, it is not a book that he can sustain. For an author who wrote a biography of the Nehrus and one of Kipling, he understands neither politics nor the cultural politics of the Raj. In Adams’ narrative historical details of the freedom struggle are all but absent, so are Gandhi’s numerous dialogues, be that with Tagore, Ambedkar, Jinnah, the Sanatani Hindus or even the British. Gandhi’s Ashrams and his constructive work are mere props in the narrative. The book is nothing but an incompetent collage, a hurriedly put together summary of Gandhi’s own writings, or some other biographical material. The bland, somewhat pedantic prose explores neither politics, nor spirituality, and certainly not sexuality. It is not even salacious; notwithstanding the promise of the title and the blurb.
Adams is unaware that the most powerful critique of Gandhi came from within the Ashram tradition: for example CB Dalal’s biography of Harilal Gandhi. He adds nothing to our understanding of Gandhi’s relationship with Harilal or Kasturba, let alone the other sons. One rarely feels after reading a book that both the act of writing and reading were entirely wasted, but this is one such book.
‘We are a nation of peeping toms and desperate voyeurs!’
Shobhaa De on the new Penguin imprint named after her and the ideal celebrity memoir
By Inder Sidhu
What will you be doing at the imprint?
I will be hand-picking authors, titles and subjects. I hope to shake up the slightly boring, slightly sluggish publishing scene here, cut the flab. I’m not in this to ‘loan’ my brand: I’m a hands-on person, no remote control. The buck will stop with me.
What kind of books will you choose?
I am looking at a wide range of subjects — from biographies to lifestyle books: a mix of commercial and cerebral publishing. The imprint is not planning on being idiotically snobbish. Books must sell!
How will the celebrity memoirs you want to publish be different from what we see in the market now?
For some strange reason we have been a bit too coy, reverential and cautious when it comes to memoirs. Being a nation of incorrigible peeping toms and desperate voyeurs, this coyness has always surprised me. What we have seen so far is hagiographic, sweet, syrupy and icky stuff. Sanitised and boring beyond belief. It’s time to bring it on!
You don’t like the quality of memoirs available today?
Naaah! Too safe. Too predictable. Too PR driven.
Which is your favourite?
Strangely enough, it is a quiet and elegant memoir, simply and beautifully written. It is by Liv Ullmann [The Norwegian actress and filmmaker].
What puts the ‘Shobhaa De’ in Shobhaa De Books?
Hey, you are goading me to brag! I’m not going to fall for it. Let’s just wait for the first few books to roll out. I don’t intend to re-invent the wheel. Publishing is super sexy — it relies on imagination and guts. No shortage of both in today’s India.
What’s your take on Indian publishers?
The end all and be all of most Indian publishers is to find the next Booker winner. This is not my objective. I find this obsession pathetic — a hangover of our colonial mindset. It’s the same as every Bollywood Johnny-come-lately angling for the Oscar, as if winning that is the ultimate accolade. Frankly, there are far more benefits to winning a Filmfare award.
Whose biography would you love to publish?
Trade secrets, my dear chap. No hints.
Who do you have already lined up as subjects or writers? Who are you planning on featuring or hoping to land?
I hate fishing. Don’t have the patience for the sport. Writers are crawling out of the woodwork at this stage. Even my liftman wants to write a book.
You’ve said your commercial fiction line will address contemporary concerns — what kind of issues will you be looking at?
Without being preachy… without being heavy on ‘message’ — definitely the concerns that confront India’s most neglected minority: women.
Are you looking to young writers to liven up fiction?
Today’s young Indians have it all — chutzpah, attitude, talent, confidence, irreverence. They really don’t give a damn. Good writers never give a damn.