The Truth About Gandhi

POLITICS

The movie Gandhi had the effect of a well-told love story: it left a pleasant feeling inside, and it offered a simple, timeless optimism, the kind we've been told to abandon by our more worldly peers, Gandhi silenced the cynics. Or so it seemed.

This month's edition of Commentary has a review of Gandhi which is; like much of Commentary's output, viciously irreverent, openly combative and extraordinarily well-written. Richard Grenier, who has been the journal's regular moviegoer for a little over four years, takes a hatchet to the movie with great glee.

Grenier is politically conservative and unabashedly elitist; his review includes quite a bit of sniping at Indian and Hindu culture. But much of the material deals with facts culled from the various biographies and writing of the real Mohandas K. Gandhi--and any way you look at it. Grenier seems correct in saying that the movie took quite a few liberties with the facts. Those who found Gandhi beautiful, inspiring and enchanting should consider the following:

* The movie, which portrays Gandhi as utterly chaste, seems to have left out scenes from real life of the Indian leader's young female followers fighting amongst each other for the honor of sleeping naked with Gandhi and cuddling him in their arms. This was his way of testing his vow of abstinence in preparation for coming struggles which required moral fortitude. Nor is mention made of the daily enemas Gandhi gave the young girls, or the enemas and nude massages they gave him each day.

While the movie accurately depicts Gandhi's successful organization of Indians in South Africa against the state's apartheid laws, it skirts a key issue: what about the Africans? It turns out Gandhi's concern with racial discrimination was limited to Indians--in fact, he offered to organize a brigade of Indians to help the English colonial rulers crush an African rebellion. On a related note, we never see how Gandhi (Sergeant-Major Gandhi) earned a War Medal from the British Empire for valor under fire while assisting the violent suppression of South African Blacks.

* The government of India not only funded one-third of the movie from its treasury, but former Prime Minister Pandit Nehru and present Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), along with other Indian officials, made suggestions on script, screenplay and casting, and rechecked the product throughout the shooting. This may in part account for the unfavorable light shone on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

* When Gandhi's wife was stricken with pneumonia, British doctors told her husband that a shot of penicillin would heal her; nevertheless, Gandhi refused to have alien medicine injected into her body, and she died. Soon after, Gandhi caught malaria and, relenting from the standard applied to his wife, allowed doctors to save his life with quinine. He also allowed British doctors to perform an appendectomy on him, an alien operation if ever there was one. None of this made it to the screen.

* On the question of nonviolence, the film presented only a to brief lines on Gandhi's view of nonviolence as a response to Hitler's Germany. In real life, Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy of India as Britain fell back before Nazi might: "This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man..." He also addressed a letter to the British people as a whole, counseling them to "Let them [the Nazis] take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your soul, nor your mind."

* Finally, says Grenier, in 1941 (with Hitler in full control of Europe and America's Pacific feel at the bottom of Pearl Harbor) Gandhi "addressed an open letter to the prince of darkness himself, Adolf Hitler...'Dear Friend,' the letter begins and proceeds to a heartfelt appeal to the Further to embrace all mankind irrespective of race, color, or creed.' Surprisingly, it is not known to have had any deep impact on Hitler."

* The real Gandhi mistreated his family. He wrote about his illiterate wife: "I simply cannot bear to look at Ba's face. The expression is often like that on the face of a meek cow and gives one the feeling as a cow occasionally does, that in her own dump manner she is saying something." He refused to educate his sons, ordered them as young men to abstain from sex, and disowned the eldest, Harilal, for warning to get married. His son eventuallty attacked Gandhi in print, converted to Islam, and died an alcoholic.

Grenier's article has more, and it gets wore. Since my own brightly optimistic enthusiasm inspired by the movie has been considerably dimmed, it's only fair that other Gandhi-lovers (the movie Gandhi, that is) should share the path. If you want fairy-tale heroes, try Star Wars or something. Mahatma Gandhi turns out to have been made of flesh and blood after all.