Archive for the ‘History’ Category

“The Europeans” by Orlando Figes

There’s something about the mid-19th century that fascinates me. Or rather, to be more precise, there’s something about the arts and the culture of the western world of the mid-19th century that fascinates me. But that’s too cumbersome for an opening line.

Pick just about any decade or two any time in history, and it would be easy to reel off the great writers, painters and composers who were active at the time, and the great works that were produced; and the mid-19th century is no exception in that regard. But what makes this period exceptional for me is that there were so many works of that era that mean so much to me personally. Let us, for instance, consider the single decade, the 1860s. It was Dickens’ last decade, and saw the publication of his last two complete novels – Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend; George Eliot weighed in with The Mill on the Floss, Lewis Carroll published the first of his two Alice novels, Robert Browning published Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last poems were published posthumously after her death in 1861; Tennyson wrote Enoch Arden, and Trollope … well, a quick glance at the reference books indicates that he was, as usual, scribbling away like no man’s business. Across the channel, there was the publication of the final edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert published Salammbô  and L’Education Sentimentale, and Zola made his mark with the wonderfully lurid Thérèse Raquin. From Russia, we have Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, while Dostoevsky was keeping himself busy with From the House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot. Tolstoy only wrote one major work in that decade, but that major work was War and Peace. And in the meantime, Ibsen, after many years churning out plays that are now only remembered because he went on to write better stuff, got off the mark as an artist with Brand and Peer Gynt, possibly the last great plays written in verse. And all this time, across the Atlantic, the two great American poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, were writing some of their finest works.

And this is just literature. There were revolutions happening in the other arts too. Music could not be the same again after Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: composers who came afterwards were either influenced by Wagner, or reacted against him, but they could not ignore him. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was also composed in that decade, as were Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos, some of the later works of Berlioz and some of the earlier works of Brahms … and so on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in the visual arts, the two giant canvases exhibited by Manet – Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe – were arguably as revolutionary in painting as Tristan und Isolde was in music. The artists now known collectively as the Impressionists (rather misleadingly, since they were all very different from each other) – Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir – were all establishing their distinctive styles and artistic visions.

Even acknowledging that we can find significant artistic activity in just about any decade we may care to look at, this seems to me quite exceptional. And if we look at the decades before and after the 1860s (don’t worry – I won’t be providing more boring lists!) we can find similar flowerings of artistry, in all areas. It could well be that I find this era particularly fascinating merely because I am personally attached to so many of its artistic creations, but I do find it hard to escape the conclusion that there was something in the air – something special was happening. But it’s hard to put one’s finger on it without making crude generalisations.

It seems to me that, around the mid-century – 1850, say – Europe, culturally, was between, as it were, two “-isms”. Romanticism wasn’t quite dead – indeed, I don’t think it ever died – but the writers who flourished in the latter half of the century cannot really be described as “Romantic”: indeed, many, such as, say, Flaubert, may rightly be described as rebelling against Romanticism. Similarly in art: the label “Romantic” may easily be applied to Turner, say, or to Delacroix, but not to the artists now known as the Impressionists, nor to the next generation who are labelled (not too imaginatively) as the post-Impressionists. Like the writers of that era, they were neither Romantic, nor Modernist. The composers who flourished in the latter part of the century are still known as Romantic – Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. – but many of the earlier generation of romantics (Mendelssohn, Weber, Chopin) were already dead by 1850, and Schumann died shortly afterwards in 1856 (although his productivity had been tragically cut off towards the end by severe mental illness). Although some of the old-timers did continue into the latter half of the century (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi), styles, inevitably, had moved on from the early days of Romanticism: Berlioz had already done much of his best work (Les Troyens excepted), while the best work of Wagner and of Verdi was yet to come. In short, whether they had labels or not, artists of the later half of the 19th century, despite the lack of an “-ism” to characterise them, were, I think, producing works that were significantly different from what had come before. And it is this period – this “inbetweenism”, in between the first wave of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism – that fascinates me. While there are, of course, many artists from outside this era whom I revere – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, and various others who carry that terrible stigma of being “dead white men” – it is this in-between era to which I most feel drawn.

And so, when a trusted friend recommended me to read The Europeans by Orlando Figes, I had little hesitation. It is, ostensibly, the story of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, and the somewhat curious ménage à trois he had with famous opera singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, and her husband, the art critic and translator Louis Viardot; but Figes hangs on this narrative line a fascinating cultural history of Europe in that period. He considers all kinds of factors that shaped the direction of the arts – political, economic, social, technological, even legal: the establishment of copyright laws, for instance, and the various bilateral agreements between nations, transformed the direction not only of literature, but also of music publishing. The greater ease of transport not only made travelling between countries easier, it increased the catchment areas of opera houses, and an increased potential pool for their audience meant a decreased requirement for a constant supply of new works. And so on. Within a few decades, the world changed in all sorts of very important ways, and the arts, to survive, and, quite often, to flourish, had to adapt and change along the way.

The narrative of Figes’ book begins in 1843, when Turgenev and Pauline Viardot first met, and continues till 1883, with the deaths of Louis Viardot and of Turgenev. An early chapter fills us in on the events before, and a concluding chapter on events afterwards – focussing, naturally, on Pauline Viardot who lost the two men in her life within a few months of each other. Their story, fascinating in itself (all three were remarkable figures) is particularly appropriate for a book that is essentially about European culture, since they were the most cosmopolitan of people. Turgenev was Russian, Louis Viardot was French, and Pauline Garcia was Spanish, but they all seemed most at home in Germany, and travelled and lived extensively around Europe. Pauline Garcia wasn’t, to judge from her portraits, particularly beautiful, but she possessed, apparently, an extraordinary personal charisma, and her singing was, from all accounts, mesmeric. At one point, we are told of Turgenev observing Dickens in the stalls, listening to Pauline singing Orfeo in a revival of Gluck’s opera (the revival was organised by some chap called Hector Berlioz) with tears streaming down his eyes. Turgenev met briefly with Dickens on the way out, and Dickens was sufficiently moved by the performance to write what is effectively a fan letter to Pauline Garcia-Viardot.

Throughout, one gets what could be called “cultural name-dropping”: there goes Manet, there’s Wagner, there’s Tolstoy – and look over there! – there’s Brahms, there’s Flaubert. The entire book, apart from anything else, is a veritable Who’s Who of major cultural figures of the time. There are some, admittedly, who remain on the fringes: Turgenev appears never to have met with Verdi, for instance, despite Verdi’s immense stature, even at the time. Although we are told Pauline Viardot had performed in Verdi’s Macbeth and Il Trovatore, we are also told of her antipathy to Verdi’s music; and Turgenev himself had been a bit rude about La Traviata in his novel On the Eve. The tastes of Turgenev and of the Viardots tended to run more towards the Germanic rather than the Italianate: Pauline Viardot was, like many others, entranced by the music of Wagner, though she was (much to her credit) outraged when Wagner reprinted his notorious pamphlet “Judaism in Music”. Another of my great cultural heroes of that era, Ibsen, doesn’t really get much of a look in either, despite having spent most of his best productive years in Europe.

The two events that most shook the lives  of Turgenev and the Viardots were the revolutions of 1848, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (The unification of Italy doesn’t appear to have touched them much, as their focus was more on the north than on the south.) For the latter Turgenev and the Viardots sided strongly with the Prussians, despite Louis Viardot’s French nationality: this was partly because they were living in Baden at the time, but also because they felt this war would help bring down the hated monarchy of Napoleon III.

Interestingly, Verdi, another great artist with liberal leanings, sided with France in this conflict, saying in a private letter that whatever the Italians knew about freedom and liberty, “we have learnt from the French”, and expressing great unease about growing Germanic nationalism. It has long seemed quite curious to me that, despite his own position as a sort of cultural representative of Italian nationalism, he chose for his next opera, Aida, a storyline that was very explicitly anti-nationalist. It is of course wishful thinking on my part that so great a cultural hero of mine should share my own political biases, and I think I should read up a bit more to see if this was indeed the case. But I continue to think it remarkable, nonetheless, that at a time when various types of nationalism around Europe were on the rise, Verdi should compose a work that so eloquently depicts human love overcoming the barriers of nationhood that separate and divide us.

For, while this era was an era of greater cosmopolitanism, it was an era also of increased nationalism: perhaps one cannot have one without the other. People became increasingly worried that with nations coming closer together, local traditions would be erased, and all different cultures homogenised. Perhaps the most notorious expression of this was the monologue Hans Sachs is given towards the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where German artists are encouraged to keep German art “pure”. This feeling was echoed by all other nationalities – the Czechs, the Russians, and the citizens of the newly united Italy. (Even Verdi urged that Italian composers should be true to the spirit and the traditions of Italian music.) There seemed to be a genuine fear that individual national characteristics will be swallowed up by the international whole – a fear that is still, incidentally, very much with us. This feeling was particularly acute in Russia, where Slavophiles and those who looked to western liberalism were virtually at each other’s throats. This conflict was very apparent in relations between Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. They met when Dostoyevsky, in Baden, visited Turgenev: he had not wanted to, but the two had met accidentally in the street, and, since Dostoyevsky owed Turgenev money, he did not want Turgenev to think that he was deliberately avoiding his creditor. There are conflicting reports on what exactly passed between the two men, but it was certainly most acrimonious, with Dostoyevsky angrily denouncing Turgenev’s last novel Smoke, and Turgenev (according to Dostoyevsky) claiming that he was proud to regard himself as a German rather than as a Russian. Turgenev later denied he had ever said such a thing. And Dostoyevsky’s debt to Turgenev never did get paid.

Like many others at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev and the Viardots found themselves refugees in England, and the picture that emerges of England at the time reads almost like a catalogue of every single stereotype about the coutry: bad food, a highly polluted foggy and dismal London, and the like. Prices in England were much higher than elsewhere in Europe: despite the shocking levels of poverty, there was clearly much more money circulating in England than there was elsewhere in the continent. (Although Figes doesn’t mention it, one suspects that the rather extensive British Empire may have had something to do with that.) And there was the cultural insularity. The British book trade depended far less on translations than did the book trades of other countries, and when Turgenev spent a few days as a guest of Tennyson’s (yes, he pops up as well), he was surprised to find that not only did this eminent man of letters know nothing of any literature written in any of the countries across the channel, he wasn’t much interested in finding out about it either.

Turgenev had his personal flaws, as does anyone, but he does emerge as a very kind and decent person. So, indeed, does Louis Viardot. Pauline Viardot, in many ways, does appear to be a stereotypically temperamental prima donna, but Figes captures the immense personal charisma that drew so many people to her. Both Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died in 1884: Viardot was some twenty years older, so his demise was perhaps not so unexpected; Turgenev died after a very painful and distressing illness. Among other things, he wrote on his deathbed a touching reconciliatory letter to Tolstoy (with whom he hadn’t always been on good terms), telling him that he considered it a privilege to have lived at the same time. Turgenev, his great friend Flaubert, Wagner, Distoyevsky, Manet and Liszt all died within about five years of each other: culturally, it did seem like the end of an era. And of course, a new one was just around the corner. But what an extraordinary few decades these were! We could see this era, of course, as a sort of bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but really, beyond a point, labels are pretty meaningless: they may help us see patterns amid all the chaos, but sometimes, these labels create patterns don’t really exist. This Inbetweenism that existed in the years covered by this book – roughly, 1843 to 1874 – remains, for me, one of the most wonderful periods of artistic and cultural activity, and The Europeans I found a quite enthralling guide. Among other things, it makes me want to revisit the works of Turgenev (“the novelist’s novelist” according to Henry James), and of his friend Flaubert. On the whole, this is the cultural era in which I feel most at home.

“Gandhi, The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948” by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi

I decided to read Ramachandra Guha’s epic thousand-page biography of Gandhi because I wanted to be as knowledgeable about that era of history as I like to pretend I am.

My parents had lived through some of these very turbulent years, and when I was young, my father, especially, used to talk about this period often; but, of course, he had his own biases, and he was not a historian. There are other reasons why the picture I have of Gandhi and of his times remains unfocussed and unclear: Gandhi has been raised on such a pedestal, declared a saint and a great soul (quite literally) even in his own lifetime, that there has been no shortage of people from various different political backgrounds trying to pull him down from that pedestal ever since; furthermore, those heady years of the Indian independence movement – roughly from around 1914 to 1947, the year of independence; or, if we want to take it up to the point of Gandhi’s assassination by Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse, January 1948 – were riven with all kinds of factionalism, and those factions, and their various different and conflicting narratives, remain with us still. All of this has resulted in a cacophony of different voices, and untangling all that to get some kind of clarity is no easy task. But, given that the very concept of Indian nationhood stems from that era, this untangling is something I was rather keen to do, and this volume, hefty though it is, seemed a good first step. And yes, I am very glad I took it, though I do realise that this is no more than a first step, and, should I want to delve into this further, there are many more steps yet to be taken. But it’s a start, and a very good start too.

But given all the factions that are still fighting each other with competing voices, what about Guha’s own stance? Guha’s position is unapologetically that of liberal democratic secularism, and that’s absolutely fine by me.

As well as attacks from right-wing Hindu nationalists, Guha’s Nehruvian stance often come under attacks from the liberal Left as well (these attacks are generally more intelligent than the ones coming from the Hindu nationalists, but frankly, the bar isn’t very high here). It is felt by many that Guha is too sympathetic towards, and insufficiently aware of, the less palatable aspects of Gandhi-ism. I did not sense this at all from the book: like most people, Gandhi had flaws; and, unlike most people, Gandhi held and acted by certain views that may politely be described as “cranky”. Guha is not reticent when it comes to discussing these matters, and he eloquently describes and takes seriously, and frequently sympathetically, the points of view of those many who had opposed Gandhi. For instance, I came away from this book with a great respect for, among others, Ambedkar, one of Gandhi’s most bitter and outspoken opponents.

Among the crankiest (from my perspective, at least) of Gandhi’s views were his views on sex (and since that topic is bound to come up, it’s best to get it out of the way first). Put in a nutshell, he was against it. He himself and taken the vow of chastity in early middle age, and he enjoined even young people to take that vow. For, to Gandhi (as to his inspiration Tolstoy), sex was impure (though it could just about be tolerated for procreation); and it was a bar to achieving spiritual liberation. I couldn’t help comparing this to D. H. Lawrence, who appeared to see sex as an expression of our spirituality. If they are on two extreme ends of a spectrum, then I, who stand clear of that spectrum altogether, can’t help seeing the two of them as a pair of nutters, each in his different way. Gandhi’s preoccupation with sex perhaps reached an apogee (I was about to write “climax”, but thought better of it) in his old age, when he shared a bed with his grand-niece, in order, it appears, to demonstrate that it is possible for the sexes to intermingle freely, even in bed, without the thorny issue of carnal desire getting in the way. This is, of course, a somewhat unpleasant detail in Gandhi’s life (some would insist it’s more than just a detail): no matter that Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (who had passed away before this particular “experiment”) had raised their grand-niece with the greatest of love and tenderness; no matter that she was of age and very much a willing partner in this; given the difference of age and prestige and of authority between the two, it is hard not to see this as a grotesque abuse of power. Some of Gandhi’s closest associates turned against him at this point. I raise this episode because it is one frequently raised by detractors as a stick to beat Gandhi with. I personally find this episode distasteful, but given that I am quite out of sympathy with the beliefs held so fervently both by Gandhi and by his grand-niece, I don’t know how significant my point of view is here. Guha does not gloss over this episode: indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to it, and, with the scrupulousness and even-handedness that is entirely correct for a biographer, records fully the points of view of Gandhi, and also of those who had opposed him in this matter. And, as a good biographer should, he tries to understand Gandhi’s own motivations in this matter, without himself passing judgement.

As Guha says in his epilogue, Gandhi had no private life. Everything he did and thought – even the most intimate details – he himself recorded with a most disconcerting openness. And naturally, this leaves him more open to criticism than the rest of us who generally manage to keep our private lives private.

While it is no doubt fun debunking myths – and the myth of sainthood is just crying out to be debunked – the myth isn’t entirely without foundation, as there are many elements in Gandhi’s life and personal make-up for which the term “sainthood” does not seem misapplied. Even conceding the various flaws in his character, there were times I found myself simply gasping with admiration. For Gandhi wasn’t born a saint. He had emerged into the wide world as a young man with a great many of the prejudices, and, yes, even many of the bigotries, that were common to people of his background. Thus, for a surprisingly long time, he saw nothing wrong with the caste system: true, he rejected from the very beginning the concept of “outcasts”, or the “untouchables”, and he insisted also that the four different castes should be on an equal footing; but the fact of caste division itself he did not appear to have a problem with. All this changed later in life: no caste distinctions were observed in his ashrams; he sanctioned and even officiated in inter-caste marriages; and, by 1945, in a foreword to a re-publication of some of his earlier writings, he wrote, quite bluntly: “If a scripture is found to sanction distinctions of high and low, or distinctions of colour, it does not deserve the name of scripture.” He added, for good measure, that the reader should “discard anything in this [older] book which may appear to him incompatible with my views given above”.

And similarly with race. While in South Africa (a period of his life not covered in the present volume), he had made a number of statements about black people that are inexcusably racist. But once again, he evolved from there, and, as is apparent from his later correspondence with various civil rights campaigners in USA, and, indeed, his welcoming many such campaigners into his ashram, whatever bigotry he had on this score, he shed completely. And similar comments may be made about his approach to feminism. Gandhi originated from a profoundly patriarchal society, and, to begin with, he had insisted that his wife and his children obey his commands. In this, too, he evolved, and by the time he arrived in India in 1914, he insisted on complete autonomy for women: in his ashram, duties were never divided on the basis of gender (men as well as women were expected to do the cleaning and the cooking), and both boys and girls were educated in the same manner. Gandhi may not have been born a saint, but he took an altogether harder path towards that end: he developed in himself those qualities that may, without exaggeration, be termed “saintly”.

The non-violence that he insisted upon was very real. He was himself prepared to suffer any kind of torment, up to and including death, rather than betray this basic principle. He seemed never to harbour even any resentment, let alone hatred, against those who mocked him, or oppressed him: in every circumstance, he tried his utmost to seek out the good in people – no matter how unlikely it may be for good to reside in them – and to appeal to their better natures, which he was convinced must exist. His strength of will, his steadfastness, and his physical and moral courage, would all be hard to credit were not all this a matter of record.

The story told in this book starts in 1914, just before the outbreak of the War, when Gandhi returned from South Africa to India, already, on account of his political campaigns in South Africa, a celebrity. (An earlier book by Guha, Gandhi Before India, records Gandhi’s life up to this point, but I haven’t yet read that, though I have been reliably informed that that volume and this, which effectively form a two-part biography, may be read independently. A further book by Guha, India After Gandhi, is a history of India since Independence, and together, these three books form a trilogy.)

It didn’t all start immediately, of course. It started with local injustices, local oppressions, and Gandhi applied there the methods of non-violence he had already practised so successfully in South Africa. Over time, it all grew, but two particular challenges unrelated to the demand for greater independence, or even for full independence, became apparent: the first was the challenge from Muslims, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah; the second from the “Untouchables”, whom Gandhi renamed (perhaps a bit patronisingly) “Harijans” (people of God), and this faction was led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. How would Muslims fare in a Hindu majority India? And, given that the Congress Party leadership consisted mainly of high caste Hindus, why should the Untouchables – the Harijans – take part in the struggle to hand over power to the very people who had oppressed them in the past, and who were likely to do so again in the future?

On the first point, Gandhi insisted on unity. He himself was completely free from any communal bias, and in his prayer meetings, regularly recited from the Bhagavad Gita, the Qu’ran, and the Bible. But it would be foolish to pretend strong communal prejudices did not exist elsewhere in the movement.

Gandhi is still thought of as the major figure in the struggle for Independence – and he was – but, from reading this book, I strongly get the impression that the greater part of his struggle was to heal the breaches on his own side. Despite the often acrimonious charges from Ambedkar (who demanded separate representation and a separate electorate for Untouchables), the greater part of Gandhi’s efforts was spent in what he himself referred to as “shaming the Hindus”: for Gandhi, any change that was meaningful had to be bottom-up: only when peoples’ hearts were changed could real change occur. Which is, of course, admirable, but one cannot really blame Ambedkar for lacking the patience: when people were being humiliated, and were suffering immensely, waiting for the oppressors’ hearts to change did not look a very attractive proposal. Gandhi’s campaigns against untouchability were not without success, but they did demand from the oppressed a patience and a forbearance that is not really to be expected from those of us who happen not to be saints.

The challenge posed by Jinnah too proved intractable. No matter how insistently Gandhi claimed that the Congress Party represented everyone, including Muslims, Jinnah refused to be convinced. Jinnah’s own party, Muslim League, performed disappointingly in the 1937 elections; and yet, only ten years later, the partition of the Indian subcontinent to provide a homeland for Muslims became inevitable. There is still much debate over how such a turnaround happened in so short a time, but much of that is surely due to Jinnah’s political brilliance, and, frankly, to his sheer bloody-minded doggedness!

And then of course, came the War, in which India found itself a participant without any form of consultation. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who seemed to view the Indian people as a bit of a nuisance, without consulting either his Executive Council, or the Central Legislative Assembly, and certainly not any Indian political leader, declared India to be at war, and that was that. But of course, claims to be fighting for freedom and democracy weren’t really very credible given Britain was denying India this same freedom and democracy.

In February 1942, George Orwell, writing in the Observer, proposed offering India dominion status, on a par with Australia and Canada, with an option to secede completely after the war; and inviting leading Indian political leaders to form an emergency unity government. This would certainly have been accepted by Congress, but neither Churchill nor Lord Linlithgow would countenance this. Eventually, Stafford Cripps, a friend of Nehru’s and Gandhi’s and sympathetic to the Independence movement, was sent over with very watered down proposals, but even here, he was quite clearly undermined from his own side, and the talks fell through. Churchill, who openly said he hated Indians, and thought them a “beastly people”, did a little dance of triumph when he heard of the failure of the Cripps initiative. While Churchill’s leadership in the War was magnificent and vital (Cripps certainly knew better than to break ranks with him), one cannot but feel that even from the perspective of winning the war, he had shot himself in the foot: the Congress leaders were all firmly anti-fascist; Nehru had seen through Mussolini when even Churchill was describing Il Duce as “the greatest lawgiver among living men”. Had Orwell’s characteristically clear-sighted proposals been taken up, Britain would have found in India a most co-operative ally and partner in the War. But instead, on top of all its other problems (including that of its very survival), they were faced with a mass non-co-operation campaign in India. It could easily have been avoided.

I am far from sure that Gandhi’s call for a non-co-operation campaign at such a time can be justified. No matter how intractable and insulting the British government had been on this matter, it was still a choice between them, or totalitarians. For surely, it must have been obvious even to Gandhi that his non-violent campaigns wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Hitler’s Germany. He had himself been deeply conflicted with the rise of totalitarian powers: the principle of non-violence, which he had devoted his entire life to nurturing, suddenly seemed in danger of becoming irrelevant. Gandhi himself would have been prepared to give his life for his beliefs, but it was a bit too much to expect the same from his followers; and appealing to the better side of adversaries was a laughable idea when those adversaries were Nazis. Himself conflicted, Gandhi made at this time a number of conflicting statements, but his declaration of a mass non-co-operation movement does seem, to me at any rate, a poor misjudgement, to say the least. His staunch ally and friend, and long time campaigner for Independence, C. Rajagopalchari, had advised him against making such a declaration; and, after the declaration despite his advice, he refused to have anything to do with it. And in England, Henry Polack, who had been Gandhi’s closest friend and ally in his South African campaigns, publicly turned against him. Given that Polack was a British Jew whose country was in danger of ceasing to exist, and whose co-religionists were being slaughtered en masse in concentration camps, his anger was entirely understandable.

It is in those few years after Gandhi’s release from prison, between 1945 and 1947, that Gandhi’s greatness becomes apparent. It is hard not to see Gandhi here as a protagonist of a great tragic drama. The generally accepted picture of Gandhi is that he emerged victor, achieving the Independence that he had so wanted and fought for. But Independence in itself was never his aim. All that he had really aimed for – religious tolerance and unity, the outlawing of cruel and barbaric practices, and, not to put too fine point on it, universal human love – seemed quite literally to go up in flames. Bengal had already suffered a devastating famine in 1942-43; now, in the wake of imminent partition, it erupted in grotesque communal violence. Each atrocity led to revenge atrocities; each side felt justified in ever-increasing cycle of bloodshed. Communal violence erupted also in Punjab – the other state which was to be partitioned; and also in Bihar, where attacks on innocent Muslims were carried out in revenge for attacks in Bengal on innocent Hindus.

With everything he had so fervently fought for now seemingly in tatters, Gandhi, now in his late 70s, did the only thing he could do: he walked into the worst affected areas in Noakhali in Bengal (now in Bangladesh), without guns, without bodyguards, and armed only with his walking-stick. It was an act of physical and moral courage that defies belief. He met with the rioters, and spoke to them and to their ringleaders. He urged them to welcome back people who had fled. He attended prayer meetings with them, whatever their religion. He even went on hunger strike, to be broken only when the violence stopped. And miraculously, it did. It defies belief, but it really did. As Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, famously commented, in Punjab there were well-armed troops to restore peace, and yet, violence continued unchecked; whereas in Bengal, there was a single unarmed old man, and the violence had stopped. Einstein had once said about Gandhi that future generations would wonder that such a man had ever existed; he had also said that Gandhi was, quite simply, “the greatest man of our times”. Reading these pages, it is hard not to agree.

In the end, this vast volume reads like a vast tragedy. Independence was secured, yes, but the cost was far, far more than Gandhi had been prepared to pay. And all that Gandhi has fought for remain unresolved to this day: communal hatreds are as intense as ever; barbarous religious practices continue, though perhaps not unabated. This astonishing tale, with all its manifold complexities, Guha relates with tremendous clarity and lucidity. And what a cast of characters! Apart from Gandhi himself, there’s Nehru; there’s Rabindranath Tagore (whose criticisms of certain aspects of Gandhi-ism did not prevent a deep and sincere admiration); there are those brilliant and charismatic antagonists of Gandhi, Jinnah and Ambedkar; there’s Rajagopalchari, whose judgement seems right in every respect, even in retrospect; there’s Churchill, there’s Cripps, and also those mighty offstage presences Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini; no novelist would have dared make up so extraordinary a cast of characters, even if they could.

Saints are not always very likeable people. I am not sure I would have liked to have known Gandhi personally (though those who did all attest to his personal charm). Like all saints, he made moral demands of humanity that humanity cannot realistically live up to. But yes, if there was ever a saint, he, I think, was one. And Guha’s epic narrative, exhaustively researched and documented, is as enthralling as any novel.