I Am Gandhi, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
Gandhi’s life was a complicated one, and this book does at least some justice to it. Unfortunately, this particular book has one of the stronger political edges of the series and in general the author’s politics are not good. Gandhi is viewed as a heroic sort of figure, but he is a choice that is not without controversy. As someone who does not believe that imperialism is inherently evil or that Gandhi’s pacifism is wholly admirable, my own view of both the life of the man and his place in contemporary social history is complicated. And complicated views of figures do not lend themselves to this sort of work, which inevitably simplifies the material at hand. This book makes it seem as if Gandhi was universally beloved of Indians both in South Africa and India, and that his ideals of nonviolent confrontation are universally applicable, when it happens more often that only a morally sensitive imperial nation is amenable to them. It so happens that both the United States with regards to segregation (more on this when I review the volumes on Rosa Parks and MLK) and the United Kingdom with regards to its behavior in India and South Africa were both moral empires who could be embarrassed into acting more justly by those who were discriminated against. Yet as the history of societies like Communist Russia and Nazi Germany show, this susceptibility to moral appeals is not always present.
This book gives a selective but not wholly unrepresentative picture of Gandhi’s life, looking at his youth, his early adoption of British fashions and later rejection of them, his time in South Africa and his return to India, and even some of his imprisonment and hunger strikes. The author points out the strength in logistics that Gandhi had by pointing to ways that Indians in South Africa and India could help provide necessities for themselves and so have some leverage against the desire of the United Kingdom to make these areas dependent on them with regards to trade. Gandhi was certainly not an impractical man, and this book, in paying attention to issues of logistics and how they relate to questions of politics and geopolitics, is at least a sensible and realistic one in that regard. Yet the book comes off as being a hagiography of Gandhi, rather than a reflection on his mixed blessings to the Indian people. Is the Indian subcontinent so much better on its own? The ordinary people of Pakistan and Bangladesh might disagree, and much of what makes India great are things it has imported from the United Kingdom.
When it comes to Gandhi himself, there are two aspects of his life and death that are the most problematic when it comes to the framing of this book. For one, Gandhi’s desire to hinder the British war effort against Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan was a serious moral mistake. The world is definitely a better place for the destruction of the military spirit of those two nations and their integration into a world dominated by the English speaking nations (long may that last). Churchill was right to resist Nazi domination, and Gandhi was wrong to hinder the efforts of the UK to protect its empire during World War II. Second, the framing of Gandhi as being universally beloved in India is counteracted by his death during the early independence era. The problem with framing Gandhi as a hero is that in order to present him heroically, one has to distort the historical record. It is better to simply print the truth, and let children choose heroes for themselves.