Ok, I’ll admit it. I attended Joseph Lelyveld’s talk in Mumbai’s Jnanapravaha for two reasons. One, I wanted to see how many people would ask Lelyveld about M.K. Gandhi’s possible homosexuality. Two, Ranjit Hoskote was to be in conversation with Lelyveld after Lelyveld presented his lecture and I really did want to hear Hoskote swirl Gandhi up in a whirlpool of polysyllables. Wish number 1 was granted — only one person asked. Wish number 2, sadly, was not granted because Hoskote didn’t use a single complicated word (damn!). He did, however, open the conversation by harking upon the Theosophist concept of the mahatma and saying that it was strange that Rabindranath Tagore had chosen to give Gandhi a title that could be considered somewhat dubious. Whether or not Tagore had been intending to call Gandhi a bit of a scamster, we’ll never know. Unless of course someone wants to call Tagore in a seance and pose the question to him. But honestly, I doubt anyone in that room had considered there was any possible jibe in “Mahatma” until Hoskote threw up the Theosophists.
Lelyveld turned out to be an old man who, sadly, isn’t a very good public speaker. At least he wasn’t in Mumbai. He came with a written speech that he had to whittle down greatly because Jnanapravaha asks speakers to limit their talk to 30-odd minutes. So that probably unsettled him to some extent. Whatever the reason, Lelyveld wasn’t particularly charismatic. Also, for anyone who had read the book, much of what he said was a repetition. And, on an entirely personal front, the setup was such that when Hoskote and Lelyveld sat down to chat, it seemed they were sitting on the floor. It turned out there was a near-subterranean sofa for them. This meant I was listening to disembodied voices and an occasional tuft of black (Hoskote) or white (Lelyveld) hair. Plus, there was a guy in front of me who was a hulk of a human being. He’s also the genius that got up and asked Lelyveld why he had written the biography on the basis of “what could be observed and seen”, instead of focussing on “the unseen”. Because life, like U2 observed, moves in mysterious ways. That and my busted knee meant I couldn’t ask the question I’d wanted to. Even if I hadn’t had a busted knee, I doubt anyone could have seen me had I stood up to ask a question, since Lelyveld and Hoskote were on a very low couch. I only mention this because for once, I’d thought of a decent question to ask while listening to a talk. Generally, my tube-light brain blinks to life a couple of days after I’ve heard someone speak. However, I suspect what gave me the confidence to even contemplate asking a question was the woman who brought Deepak Chopra into the conversation and asked Lelyveld what he thought Gandhi would have to say about the iPad and the computer (which, to Deepak Chopra, is the modern-day charkha, apparently). Bless. Lelyveld replied that he didn’t feel himself to be in a position to answer for Gandhi. The hulk in front of me, on the other hand, had no such hesitation. He got up and, before articulating his question, told Lelyveld that he believed Gandhi would have embraced the iPad as a challenge that must be met. Now we know.
Anyway. Some notes from Lelyveld’s talk, which was titled “Gandhi and The Struggling Subcontinent”.
Lelyveld’s central point was that Gandhi struggled with India as much as he struggled for India.
A friend of Lelyveld’s, whom he hadn’t seen in a few decades, met him before the talk and told him that they had some issues with Great Soul. “You cannot say of the Mahatma that he cackled and cuddled,” Lelyveld’s friend told him. Later Lelyveld said, “I don’t have a special language for writing about revered people.”
“I took it as my purpose to pursue him [Gandhi] at ground level. He called himself earthy. I take him at his word.”
“I’m not the Joseph Lelyveld who wrote a book on the secret sex life of Gandhi.”
“He [Gandhi] was a more complicated and divided man than he let on. But if India has a social conscience today, it’s because of Gandhi.”
Gandhi was very aware in 1947 that each of the values that he had thought essential had been pretty much brushed aside. In Bihar, Muslims were slaughtered by Hindus to the cry of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai”.
“I mean to be provocative, not offensive.”
In April 1947, Gandhi said about the way the subcontinent was being divided, “God save us from the atom bomb mentality.”
“I don’t think I would have liked to cover [as a reporter] him [Gandhi] in close quarters.”
Gandhi was flippant with reporters. Also he edited his transcribed remarks at the end of each day. All reporters carried the edited transcripts. That was the only authorised text. You’d be ostracised if you didn’t use the text that Gandhi had edited.