Is it possible for one man to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings?
While employed at the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld reported from South Africa, and then from India. Decades before, one of the world’s most famous individuals, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – better known as Mahatma (“great soul”) – had lived in both countries in the same consecutive manner. As a result, Lelyveld began thinking and writing about the complicated, consequential man, assassinated in 1948 at age 78.
Now in his seventies, Lelyveld has written an unusual book, hoping to find the words to understand Gandhi, a man who in many ways, to be sure, was a saint – but a saint who sometimes contradicted himself and who pretty much failed to change the world in the ways that he wanted.
To call Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India a biography is to stretch that genre’s meaning. The book does not claim to cover all the important events and individuals in Gandhi’s life; its progression is not always chronological; and Lelyveld’s speculative passages undocumented by hard evidence are numerous. To call the book an extended essay is to stretch another genre’s boundaries, because normal essays do not go on for nearly 400 pages.
Perhaps the best classification for the book is to call it a rumination, based on copious research and intellectual passion and an author’s search for the answer to this question: Is it possible for one individual to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings over a vast geographical territory?