I am no historian, or even a scholar who is well-versed in the material that this book concerns itself with. Therefore, t(written for another purpose)
I am no historian, or even a scholar who is well-versed in the material that this book concerns itself with. Therefore, this review is strictly a layman’s review.
Popular historian Arthur Herman in this book scripts parallel biographies of MK Gandhi and Winston Churchill, two titans of the last century, whose influence is indicated by their places as the runner-up to Person of the Century (1900 - 2000) and the Person of the Half Century (1900 – 1950) respectively by Time.
The book has several remarkable merits. It is well-paced, gripping and at most points a page-turner. Its penchant for digging up unusual details and startling facts calls to mind that masterpiece of historical storytelling, Freedom at Midnight. The narrative and structure, from the point of view of timeline and two parallel storylines, is extremely commendable; one never loses track of time or of events, or sight of the big picture.
While the book looks to be solid on facts, its interpretations seem questionable, even simplistic, especially regarding Gandhi. To summarize the impressions one would glean from the book - both the characters, conventionally and in the public imagination considered unequivocal heroes, come off badly.
Churchill (admittedly about whom this is my first and perhaps last book) comes off as a person gifted with uncommon courage, great oratorical skill, and a generous dose of luck, but not possessed of an inclination toward out-of-the-box or even objective thought. Because his set of core beliefs – colonialism, democracy, capitalism with certain welfare systems, anti -communism and –totalitarianism – does not appear to be founded on rational thought, and his intellectual capacities seem ordinary, one is inclined to ascribe his unyielding adherence to these beliefs even in the face of extraordinary challenge more to an innate stubbornness and fundamentalism rather than an enlightened steadfastness. His megalomania and racism become apparent through understated facts and comments throughout the narrative; the shocking extent of his racism is brought out best by his comments about and reaction to the Bengal famine.
Gandhi comes off more as a shrewd strategist than a well-intentioned saint-politician. Herman’s approach strikes one as uncharitable toward Gandhi, and sometimes needlessly sensational; too much is made of middle-aged Gandhi’s racism against blacks and lower-class Indians (which is not all that startling given his historical and cultural context as the author would have us believe), his emphasis on manliness, and particularly his faddish experiments with diet. These experiments as well as his sexual experiments (upon which Herman should have elaborated) are, again, not incongruous with the spirit of the puritanical ascetic tradition of India. It is standard fare in Hindu thought that a complete subjugation of the passions is a prerequisite of, or coincident with, salvation. While Herman justifiably dismisses Gandhi’s ideas on industry, nonviolent protest (being an effective weapon in all cases – even extreme ones like Hitler), and society as impracticable or even downright silly, he misses or deemphasizes Gandhi’s essential nobleness: his peacebringing trip to remote Noakhali whilst in the thick of political turmoil, his ceaseless battle against untouchability, religious intolerance and indignity of labor, and his singular contribution toward making the struggle for independence a countrywide event and therefore promoting national identity, perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Herman’s account of the impact of Gandhi’s campaigns, though closer to the truth than several others that simplistically conclude that Gandhi brought independence to India, seems to err in the other direction: he judges the campaigns’ performances harshly since he compares their actual consequences against their promised consequences (independence in one year, and so on). A more measured account would conclude that the campaigns were, in fact, effective in the sense that successive campaigns swelled the numbers of protesters, intensified the drive for independence, mobilized world opinion, and tired the British. And through all this, they contributed hugely to India achieving its independence.
The overdone dramatic subtitle of the book – “The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age” – presages the style of narration. Throughout the book, one gets the niggling feeling that marketing wisdom was a partial reason for juxtaposing these very different lives with each other. Though some of the parallels he draws in Gandhi’s and Churchill’s lives, as well as the impact they had on each others’ situations, are enlightening, the constant exercise of establishing interconnections between the two giants quickly gets trying for the reader. The “ta-da” closings of several chapters don’t help.
For the reader who expected to be inspired by great lives, one common quality between the protagonists hits home: Gandhi and Churchill both faced crushing failures during their lives, the kind that would induce most men to exhaust and give up. But they didn’t, and their continuous resilience accounted largely for their places in history. The ultimate conclusion of the book is inexorable: Gandhi’s and Churchill’s ideas captivated their people for a time, but pragmatism, as always, won out, and history evaded them. ...more