Writer Joseph Lelyveld

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer discusses his controversial new biography Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.

Joseph Lelyveld spent nearly 40 years with The New York Times. Beginning as a copy boy, he held several positions, including foreign correspondent in London, Hong Kong, Johannesburg and New Delhi and executive editor. Since his retirement in '01, he's written for numerous publications. Lelyveld has also authored several nonfiction books, including one on apartheid, Move Your Shadow, which won the Pulitzer for General Nonfiction. His latest, Great Soul, is a controversial text on Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle for social justice in India.


Tavis: Joseph Lelyveld is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist whose nearly 40-year career at “The New York Times” included his run as the paper’s executive editor.
In 1986 he won the Pulitzer for his terrific text about apartheid in South Africa called “Move Your Shadow.” His latest best seller is called “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.” Joseph Lelyveld, an honor to have you on this program, sir.
Joseph Lelyveld: It’s a real pleasure, thank you.
Tavis: The title is I don’t want to say misleading, but interesting – the subtitle, that is, “His Struggle with India,” because a lot of the text has to do with his early time in South Africa. What do those – in a nutshell, what do those early years tell us about the soul that we would eventually come to know of Gandhi?
Lelyveld: Well, “great soul” is the literal translation of the word “mahatma,” and he was – you don’t declare yourself to be a mahatma; it’s something people recognize in you, and he was dubbed a mahatma about five or six years after he returned to India.
But he lived in South Africa for a full 21 years and a third of his adult life, and it’s there that his social vision and his values really took shape in that very difficult society, in that context. I think that what I’m trying to show in this book is that he came back to India with a grasp of what he wanted to accomplish there, and it wasn’t something that India, although India was prepared to embrace him as a leader and to revere him, it wasn’t something India was easily prepared to embrace because it was a collision with many traditional Indian social values.
So that’s why I say his struggle with India. He brought back a set of values from this other place, this other subcontinent where he’d been living that India was not instantly or even in the long run very ready to accept.
Tavis: We’ll come back to India in a bit, I suspect. What as Gandhi seeing and experiencing in South Africa that helped, to your point, sir, to shape these values?
Lelyveld: Well, for one thing, he became – he wasn’t automatically, but he became the leader of a small immigrant community, and of course a racially mixed land where the bulk of the population were Africans, but whites were seizing power and putting together what came to be the nation we know as South Africa.
Gandhi found himself in a variety of conflicts with the whites. What he was trying to do, really, was to claim equal rights for Indians – British Indians, he called them – as citizens of the British Empire. He was not yet talking about independence.
So he was saying, “We’re citizens of the British Empire, we deserve the same rights as whites.” He sort of left the Black majority out of that discussion, and the whites weren’t real interested in equality with Indians, and they replied that why should we treat Indians as equals when Indians don’t treat one another as equals?
They were referring to the caste system and phenomena like untouchability, and for Gandhi that was a real thunderbolt. He just saw all at once that social equality and Indian freedom were wrapped up together as core issues. That’s the beginning of Gandhi becoming Gandhi.
Tavis: I’m thinking about an interesting juxtaposition, which I’m sure you’ve wrestled with intellectually as well, which is that great American – to my mind, the greatest American we’ve ever produced, my own assessment, Dr. King, adores Gandhi, reveres Gandhi, wants to learn everything he can about Gandhi, goes to Gandhi’s place and sleeps on the floor throughout the night by himself, all the stuff that you know about how King just adored, again, Mahatma Gandhi.
King takes Gandhi’s principles to get this society to include African-Americans, to include Blacks.
Lelyveld: Correct.
Tavis: But early in his life, Gandhi was on the Indian question but to your point didn’t include Blacks in his vision of expansion and fairness and human rights back then. What do you make of that juxtaposition?
Lelyveld: Well, it’s an illuminating one. Gandhi did not really have a national vision for South America. It has to be said that few people did in that period. The Black national organizations that became the liberation movement that now governs in South Africa had not yet come into existence during the bulk of Gandhi’s time there.
He met some people who would become leaders among Blacks, but he only met them glancingly. He had no deep associations or friendships. So his vision was narrow, but I think in the context of that time and period – I don’t mean to whitewash it; that’s not a pun, but –
Tavis: No pun intended, huh? (Laughter)
Lelyveld: But I think it’s understandable. Over time, it becomes clear that as you watch everything Gandhi says about the African majority in South Africa, over time it becomes clear he understands what’s going on there and he has some vision of what the future will have to be. But I think his basic idea is that’s not my struggle, that’s not the struggle now. I have to worry about my own people.
Tavis: How, then – this is a loaded question, deliberately and unapologetically, but respectfully – how, then, did Gandhi come to decide – and I hear the point you made earlier that you don’t declare yourself a mahatma, it’s thrust upon you – but how did he decide to accept the calling, to accept the vocation of dedicating his life to this principle of human rights?
Lelyveld: I think he had already accepted it by the time he left South Africa. He did a very interesting blending of traditional Indian religious values and more modern social values. It’s a common thing in Hindu life, had been, that at a certain point a man seeking spiritual fulfillment would detach himself from the things of this world and would give up his possessions, give up his family, even, and go on a kind of pilgrimage until he expired.
That was one of the models of possible paths for Hindus. Gandhi took part of that and melded it with the idea of almost a social worker and a political leader – you have to work in this world as a way of achieving spiritual fulfillment. So he did that strange costume change and became the Gandhi that we all picture when we imagine him, having been a well-attired, suited, British-style lawyer, and he went to ashrams, traditionally places for meditation and spiritual fulfillment, but from there, he organized a political movement.
Tavis: At what age – and I’ll tell you why I’m asking this in just a second; since we’ve talked about Gandhi and King, maybe you know where I’m going with this – but at what age would you suggest, having written the text, that Gandhi really is in the full acknowledgement of his purpose around the issue of social justice?
He starts in South Africa, to your point, goes back to India, but at what age is he really in the thrust of?
Lelyveld: I would say he starts making this transformation in his life in his late thirties – 37 or 38 – and I think the key moment comes in 1913, when he would have been 44. So his late thirties, early forties.
Tavis: The reason why I ask that, because that is, to be sure, a journey. It’s a journey, it’s an evolution. King, by contrast, is dead at 39. He’s already a Nobel laureate, the youngest then, still the youngest. But he’s already a Nobel laureate, he starts leading the Montgomery bus boycott at the age of 26.
I’m not trying to cast aspersion on Gandhi; I’m just asking for your own assessment of the contrast, the comparison between Gandhi, who King wants to emulate, who finds his calling at 44, King is dead at 39.
Lelyveld: Gandhi doesn’t have many models to emulate on the path he’s set out on, so that’s one answer. Another – I had an interesting discussion with an audience in New York a couple of nights ago on something very adjacent to this point.
I raised the question of I wonder what would have happened to King if he had escaped the assassin’s bullet and lived on into his eighties, and how would we feel about him now?
Tavis: Very differently.
Lelyveld: Would he be – he conceivably would have fought a lot of lost causes. He was moving into inner-city poverty, he was moving into issues of war and peace with reference to the Vietnam War in a way that was not necessarily popular at the time.
Tavis: And wealth redistribution and – yeah, yeah.
Lelyveld: That’s right. Would he have been seen as a kind of peripheral figure in the end, or would he have found some way to stay at the center of our social conversation? I don’t know.
Tavis: I’ve had that debate with my dear friend, Dr. Cornel West. We’ve had this discussion over and over and over again about how we would regard or not regard Martin King had he lived into his eighties, which raises a fascinating question back to Gandhi – how, then, did Gandhi, from 44 until his death, stay focused?
Lelyveld: Well, Gandhi – that’s an interesting – Gandhi, quite remarkably, returning from South Africa to India, becomes, in a period of five or six years, the nation’s recognized and revered leader. This is before mass communications, in a period when two-thirds of all Indians, at least, are living in villages with no form of – no radios –
Tavis: There’s no Twitter.
Lelyveld: (Laughs) No, nothing remotely like it. And yet somehow, wherever he goes to speak, by the early ’20s crowds of 50,000, 100,000 are turning out to hear him. They can’t even hear him because there’s not that kind of amplification, but they want to see him and have connection with him.
Their whole reverence of Gandhi grows up apart from any grasping of what his central values are. There’s just somehow the notion that he cares about us in a new and different way. We haven’t seen a leader like this before.
He then, as leader of the national movement, is in and out of politics for the rest of his life. He’ll be very active in a campaign for three or four years and then he’ll sort of retire to the periphery because he has more important things to do, specifically in the area of social reform and social values, and the movement sort of departs from his path.
Then he comes back and yanks it back in the direction he hopes it will go, and so Gandhi’s life is an oscillation between withdrawal and taking command. He never quite lets go, but in 1934 he actually resigns from the Indian National Congress, the main movement. It’s as if Dr. King had resigned from the Southern Leadership Conference. He resigned because he felt they were paying lip service to his values and he needed to concentrate on them.
Tavis: Yeah, well, to your point, King didn’t resign from SCLC, as you know, but when he comes out, to your earlier point, against the war in Vietnam, his own board criticizes him and goes against him on his Vietnam speech, and that was a major rift in King’s own organization.
Give me 30 seconds to set this up because it (unintelligible) but I want to ask you a powerful question, I think, about this. I was giving a speech the other day in Seattle and I’d had your book in my bag for a couple of days. So I’d been flipping through it, and I’m giving a talk the other day about love in our public discourse, and the whole talk is basically my wrestling openly and publicly with this question of whatever happened to the notion of love in our public discourse – whatever happened to love at the epicenter of debates in the public square.
Example number one, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi puts love at the epicenter of public policy debates. You say that nowadays, you get laughed out of the room – that love somehow ought to be centered in the public square. King puts love at the center, Bobby Kennedy does it, Mahatma Gandhi does it. Nowadays, you get laughed out of the room even raising the question of how love fits into our public discourse.
I say all that to ask how is it that this guy was the first, really, in this way, to put this notion of love, that everybody’s worthy, that everybody has value, that all life has equal value – how did he squarely situate love at the center of public policy discourse?
Lelyveld: Well, you have to look at India to find the answer to that. Indians really weren’t used to thinking of themselves in national terms as Indians. They were Bengalis, they were Biharis, they were Muhammadans, they were Muslims, they were Hindus, they were Sikhs, and all these ethnic and religious groupings, and the various caste groupings, created a great churning stew.
In South Africa, Gandhi had the problem of taking this small Indian community and binding it together, and it’s there he learned to say there’s one word that describes who we are – it’s Indian. We have to have mutual respect and regard if we are ever going to be free.
It’s an analysis of the tendencies that tend to fling people apart, and that was his countervailing answer.
Tavis: When Gandhi talks about Satyagraha, that soul force, what does he mean by that?
Lelyveld: Well, it means firmness in truth, and he means – originally, he used the term “passive resistance.” For Gandhi, nonviolence wasn’t just a renouncing of violence. Nonviolence was a form of struggle, and firmness in truth, he meant that you have to be able to take the blows, literally and metaphorically, that come at you without reacting violently.
So he would have his campaigns, which were geared to getting tens of thousands of people to behave in a disciplined manner. It seldom really worked, because you didn’t have tens of thousands of people who were trained in the methods of nonviolence. If you were lucky, you had hundreds. So Gandhi would wait years before he called another campaign, but he did it very successfully on a few occasions.
Really, in my mind, the two greatest examples of nonviolent resistance that we’ve had were Gandhi’s salt march in 1931 and the march from Selma, Alabama, in 1965. There’s nothing that quite achieves that level of discipline, but you see it in our own times, if you look at Cairo and Tunis – maybe not Tripoli, because they went and got guns.
But Gandhi’s whole idea was you took the blows, and that that required more courage than perhaps you’d expect of a soldier on a battlefield.
Tavis: So that message, as you well know and document, isn’t altogether popular for people who think that turning the other cheek is a joke. King obviously got that, Gandhi got that, since you mentioned the Selma march and compared that to the salt march.
I’m wondering how it is on a personal level – I’m talking now about his soul, his inner being, how he navigated through the push-back. We know now that Dr. King was depressed, we know that King did a lot of crying, a lot of shedding of tears, particularly after his own people and the country turns against him on the Vietnam question.
So King is depressed, King is in tears, and near the end of his life he’s doing some heavy drinking. It took a toll on Dr. King. I said on this program the other night that the autopsy done on King’s body, he’s dead at 39, as we said earlier, but the autopsy reveals that he had the insides of a 65-year-old man.
Lelyveld: Wow.
Tavis: So it took its toll on King’s body. How did Gandhi, back to the text, how did Gandhi navigate that sort of push-back?
Lelyveld: Well, surely not by heavy drinking. Not even by heavy eating. Gandhi went through an incredible physical discipline every day involving long walks, small meals, long baths, massage, to keep himself – he doesn’t look like a he-man, but to keep himself fit and ready to deal with these things.
He managed it by a process of constant self-recreation, too. He was always reinventing himself for new trials. Gandhi said once that, “I am not a quick despairer.” I quote that several times in the book. He really had a sense of himself as being in it for the long haul, but towards the end of his life, which is, in my mind, the most dramatic period – the real opera of Gandhi’s life is when India is becoming independent but falling apart with partition, mass killings, by every population group, practically, against every other population group, Gandhi comes very close to despair and at times says things like, “I’m a sinking ship, I’m a spent bullet, I’m a back number.”
On Independence Day, when everybody gathers in New Delhi to celebrate the arrival of freedom for which they’ve been struggling for decades, Gandhi isn’t present, he’s not there. He refuses to be interviewed on the national radio station. He says, “This is a sorry affair. It’s not the social -” sure, India’s becoming an independent, free-standing state, but it’s not the way he imagined it would happen.
He thought that this would be the result of a great social transformation in which a lot would be – in which the Indian middle classes and elite would recognize their responsibility for raising up the poorest people.
Tavis: How is Gandhi regarded these days in India?
Lelyveld: Well, I’ve learned some interesting lessons about this in recent weeks. My book has been banned in one state; it’s on its way to being banned in another state. Last week there was a small demonstration, not real or significant, against me with a picture of my head in a noose, saying “Hang Joseph Lelyveld” in New Delhi.
I’m accused of having besmirched the reputation of the father of the nation. It makes me realize how brittle in some Indian minds the concept of Gandhi is. They think of him as a pious man, a holy man, a fearless man who taught them courage, but there are large parts of his message that have been neglected, so this book contends, and I think it’s really that contention that offends some Indians.
Tavis: What is it most about the narrative of his life as we think we know it that is so inaccurate? Anything in particular come to mind?
Lelyveld: No, I don’t think the narrative of his life is inaccurate. I see this as augmenting the narrative of his life, supplementing it. The narrative of his life as he told it in his autobiography and as it’s been largely handed down I think is quite correct.
He’s a remarkable figure in world history, he was the leader of the first mass anti-colonial movement of the 20th century, he’s all of those things. But he was also a man who dreamed of achieving a level of love, as you put it, between Hindus and Muslims, of abolishing untouchability, the idea that the mere presence or contact with another social group could actually pollute a person, and of instilling values of nonviolence and really focusing on the poorest in the society.
None of these things have exactly happened. It would have been a miracle if they had happened, as we can see in our own society, but for Gandhi, it was a huge disappointment and that’s why I try to argue with India in mind that he remains the social conscience of India today. He’s long dead, but people in India who really struggle with the issues he laid out have every right to think of themselves as Gandhians.
Tavis: One of the most fascinating and influential persons ever to walk the face of this planet, and that’s why all these years later we’re still talking about Mohandas K. Gandhi. The new book about Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India is called “Great Soul,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Joseph Lelyveld. Good to have you on. Thanks for sharing the text.
Lelyveld: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm