The Freedom of Jaipur


If the forced absence of Salman Rushdie brought discontent to the Jaipur Literary Festival in India, the presence of Joseph Lelyveld, whose book on Mahatma Gandhi was banned in Gujarat last year, brought some cheer to the organizers.

When Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India first appeared, there was plenty of criticism dished out for the way it portrayed the father of the Indian nation, not least because it was suggested Gandhi was bisexual.

The rightist Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, banned the book before it was allowed to come to India, a decision that Lelyveld was happy to take a dig at here at the festival. “I’m a survivor of a fatwa from the great Gandhian chief minister of Gujarat who banned my book,” he said.

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This is the first visit to India by the Pulitzer Prize winning author since the controversy over the book arose, and he seems to be relishing the experience and attention he’s getting here.

“From the author’s point of view, it’s a mixed blessing,” he said of the controversy. “While many absurd things were said about the book, it became known through the controversy, and I have Narendra Modi to thank for popularizing the book.”

“I’ve come to India to clear up the doubts about the controversy,” he added.

When asked about the restraint an author should or should not exercise when dealing with figures who are so highly revered, the former New York Times journalist admitted that there had been some useful lessons. “The whole controversy taught me something very important about the environment in which Gandhi grew up in,” he said.

Lelyveld said that one of the reasons for choosing Gandhi as the subject for his book was his general interest in India. He said he spent four years in South Africa working as a journalist, and it was there where he first felt compelled to start trying to find out more about him. “Gandhi is such a huge subject, and there are so many facets to his personality that it’s always possible to write new things about him. I tried to do that.”

Commenting on how things stand in India now – and how Gandhi might have seen them – the author said he “can’t talk on behalf of Gandhi, but I can imagine if Gandhi saw the luxury of the high end hotels today, shopping malls for well to do middle classes, and the development of the rich ghetto, he wouldn’t take much satisfaction from that.”

But he added that Gandhi himself wasn’t without his failings, and he noted that some of his projects didn’t go according to plan.

“Gandhiji’s own experiments didn’t often work out to his own satisfaction. In his view, his initiatives for Hindu-Muslim amity, abolition of untouchability and establishment of a just social order didn’t quite work out brilliantly,” Lelyveld said.

On the comparisons with social activist Anna Hazare, Lelyveld said that the Anna movement is “by no means Gandhian, it’s a different phenomenon altogether.”

One of the beautiful things about the Jaipur Festival is the open questioning and interaction between the authors and the public. It offers valuable space to clear up doubts and controversy created by forces who too often have never even bothered to read the books they are condemning.

By forcing Rushdie to be absent from this literary gathering, the religious fundamentalists and the government have denied the people their right to be informed and enlightened.

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