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Spring 2012
Volume 16, Number 2

Tara Needham introduction of Joseph Lelyveld  4/3/2012

Introductory Remarks for Jospeh Lelyveld, Written and delivered by Tara Needham April 3, 2012,  Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany.

Good evening.  Its my great honor to offer introductory remarks for our guest this evening Joseph Lelyveld, who is former executive editor of the NY Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author, most recently, of the highly original and at times controversial Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India (2011).

“How did you get the nerve to write about Gandhi?” This was the first question—in so many words— posed by South Asian scholar Arjun Apadurai to Joseph Lelyveld in an interview last year. As the subject of more than thirty previous biographies, and a copious writer in his own right (Gandhi’s collected works fill more than one hundred volumes), Gandhi is an imposing figure to approach, to say the least.

Lelyveld appeared un-phased by the question, and as one reads Great Soul, it becomes clear that it was not nerve per se but journalistic instinct, honed over more than forty years at the New York Times, that lead him to his subject, and to realize “Gandhi was the story” he had to write. As Geoffrey C. Ward noted in the NY Times:

Lelyveld is especially qualified to write about Gandhi’s career on both sides of the Indian Ocean: he covered South Africa for The New York Times (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his book about apartheid, “Move Your Shadow”), and spent several years in the late 1960s reporting from India. He brings to his subject a reporter’s healthy skepticism and an old India hand’s stubborn fascination with the subcontinent and its people. (March 24, 2011)

Later in the same interview with Apadurai, Lelyveld jokes that while an endlessly fascinatingt, some of Gandhi’s deepest commitments, such as vegetarianism—and celibacy—were not things he held in common with his subject.

Great Soul is also driven to expose and understand the  political dissonance between those who today claim Gandhi as an heir and their apparent disregard for the tenets of social equality for which he fought in South Africa and India.  Very recent case in point, the leaders of the right-Hindu party who have clamored for the ban of the book in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat espouse an anti-Muslim politics that contradicts Gandhi’s work to heal rifts between Hindus and Muslims.

Gandhi is enshrined in many ways:  in the dominant narrative of the Indian nationalist movement; in the theory and literature of peace and conflict studies; as the gaunt, bespectacled  man draped in white, and as Joseph Lelyveld consistently point out in Great Soul, in the landscape and iconography of modern South African and India. It is this enshrinement that punctuates and propels his investigation into Gandhi with an urgency, lest Gandhi be enshrined to the past, to impenetrable and even dangerous myth.

If Gandhi  was the story, then South Africa was the setting for what Lelyveld considers one of the most compelling yet least commented upon periods of Gandhi’s life: Gandhi spent one-third of his adult life in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914.  As a newly trained London barrister, he first served an elite Muslim trading class and early on began experiments with diet and religion.  Lelyveld shows us a Gandhi who on the one hand is so moved by reading Tolstoy and Ruskin, he founds two intentional communities, but who also lives a cosmopolitan existence in Johanneseburg, sharing a home with German architect Herman Kallenback for several years.  Gandhi is shown as someone quick to defend and demand the  rights of British citizenship for  professional Indians in South Africa, but reluctant to identify with and champion the largest portion of the South African Indian community, the coolies- or indentured workers.  Further, this Gandhi does not immediately align the struggles of Indians with those of Black South Africans, and even serves the British in the Boer War and during a period Zulu resistance in 1906.

Yet, Lelyveld persuasively argues that it is precisely this opportunity in South Africa to forge a unified Indian identity among a smaller community —aspiring to transcend caste and religious difference—that allows him to develop his main tenets of rejection of violence of a political tactic and the removal of untouchability in his struggle for Indian independence. Thus, it is while he still resides in South Africa, and will for another five years,  that Gandhi composed the most complete and direct statement of his philosophy of passive resistance, a critique of western modernity and British colonial rule,  called Hind Swaraj, or home rule. Hind Swaraj is written in the form of a Socratic dialogue between the editor of a newspaper, and an imagined reader who poses resistance, raises question, providing the editor, Gandhi, ample opportunity to explain his own of positions.  It seems appropriate, then, that we have with us tonight another editor, a careful reader, and a thoughtful and provocative writer.  It also seems wholly correct that Gandhi’s commitment to truth would be compelling to a long-time newspaper man, also committed to the place of truth in our public discourse.  Join me in welcoming Joseph Lelyveld.