Mahatma Gandhi & William Shirer

Gandiji is coming back to Indian conversation in many ways; it was through Gandhi the movie in 1982, ‘Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara’ in 2005, ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ in 2006, then it was through Gandhi My father that hit the screens some months ago. As the father of our nation, he will remain in our hearts and minds, no doubt about that.

Many years ago a team of HR managers from a famed car company came to our office to determine opinion & feelings of expatriate managers in a third country. We talked about this and that till one of them asked me ‘Tell me what you think was Gandhi’s greatest asset’. I was actually taken aback, and floundered for a few minutes before getting into things like humility, dedication, perseverance, concept of Satyagraha and so on. The questioner, an Italian, said at the end, I don’t think so; I think he was the greatest mass communicator, ever. This happened in 1996 and I guess he was right.

Remember the brilliant ‘Telecom Italia’ Gandhi ad, below from 2006?

And I wondered, did it require an Italian to teach me this attribute of Gandhi? Today he is exemplified in MBA & communications courses. We all revered him, but many of the masses never understood much of what he said when he traveled in India, for example the rural masses of South India!!

All this took me back to a book I read about Gandhiji. Though ‘My experiments with truth’ sounded sermonizing to me when I read it during my teens, the book I read much later was a classic. It was in 1980, that Chicago born William Shirer wrote the book ‘Gandhi – A memoir’. It is not very well known or easily available in India (because of the last chapters I guess), and I was fortunate to find it at the vast Milwaukee airport second hand bookstore (one & only used book store in an airport). As I got my teeth into it, I found it fascinating, covering many facets of Gandhi not previously talked about. It was truly enjoyable and well worth the read. It was far easier than the dense but classic ‘Rise and fall of the third Reich’ by Shirer.

The layman would equate Shirer to the tall Gora (played by Martin Sheen) who accompanied Kingsley Gandhi in the 1982 movie. In reality Shirer spent only a few years of his life with Gandhiji (1930-32) and he said in the book "I count the days with Gandhi the most fruitful of my life. No other experience was as inspiring and as meaningful and as lasting. No other shook me out of the rut of banal existence and opened my ordinary mind and spirit to some conception of the meaning of life on this perplexing Earth."

Shirer went on to say - William L. Shirer, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, observed both Hitler and Gandhi. In Hitler he saw a great orator using staged settings to move captive audiences to his will. Gandhi on the other hand was somehow “the manifestation of their [Indians] collective conscience.” He often led them without speaking, using only his fellowship. He explained, “They felt in the presence of this great man that something immense was suddenly happening in their drab lives, that this saintly man in his loincloth cared about them, understood their wretched plight and somehow had the power, to do something about it.” Gandhi—A Memoir, Shirer pp. 68-69

Shirer explained that Gandhi understood two-way communication as part of effective representation and demonstrated it in an interview with a college teacher, who said: “For these masses Gandhi holds out the only light, the only hope there is. They want to see the man who, they are told, goes around half naked like themselves and yet who dares to present their grievances to the mighty, bemedaled white Viceroy himself.” Gandhi—A Memoir, Shirer pp. 70-71.

For those interested, even though the book is out of print, Amazon still has some second hand copies at $1.00 plus shipping. It is a good read, pick it up…

Vaikom Satyagraha, for the right of the untouchable Hindus to use the roads round the temple at Vaikom tested his principles of Satyagraha together with Sree Narayana Guru (Here was where Vaikom Mohd Basheer the famous writer & Gandhian mentions having received his blessings & managed to touch Gandhiji’s hand) .

Gandhi’s intervention on March 10th 1925 secured the victory. He later visited Payyanur on 12th Jan 1934.

Many years ago, while I used to visit N Delhi on business, I used to stay at Hotel Marina in Connaught place, just across the famous Madras restaurant. It was a nicely placed hotel and after a tough day, the perfect place to be. Walking to Janpath and other places was easy and the rooms though not 5 star, acceptable. Much later, I read that Nathuram Godse and his team stayed in this very hotel preparing and planning Gandhi’s assassination, ten days before it was finally done. Check out the marina link above to read more about the plot…

I hope the younger generations will continue to remember this leading light….


As they say Muttathe mullakk manamilla
We get to learn about him through others.

PS:My parents are from Payyanur :)
Alex said…
An apt article-especially in an age where it is fashionable to tarnish the great personalities who has shaped our world.I was saddened but not surprised when I saw the Time magazine coming out with a cover story of how Mother Teresa anguished over the doubts she had about her own faith in Jesus.So what? She was only human but certainly one of the greatest humans He created. Similarly it has become a fashion over the past few years by 'some liberated Indians' to question the tactics adopted by Gandhiji; the flaws in his personality and his failures as a husband and as a father[BTW, Maddy your link to Gandhi, My Father is not working]. I say, so what? For God's sake he was as human as we all are but he has done more to humanity than any of his detractors![see that Italian ad-they seem to have more respect for Bapuji than we have?!].
One of the things I have noted by reading your blogs is the fact that you seem to be a voracious reader!And I feel a bit ashamed as there was a time when I too was one.Nowadays, anything more than a readers digest is too big for me!!
Pooja said…
Hi There:
I came to your blog when Alex left a comment there that you had written something similar to what I had posted in mine. I really feel bad when people are more interested in seeing negatives and seldom think of positives these great people had
Maddy said…
thanks nikhil - most people do not and have not even really tried to understand the success of Gandhiji.. when you try to, you will come across a very clever & interesting person..

Alex - people are in the end just that - people. these mahatma attributes are given by third parties, labels Gandhiji himself did not ask for.let us therefore concentrate on the good he did. ah yes, i do read a lot and despair these days that we have only so much time to do so!!

Pooja - i read your blog and saw the video - well, i must admit that i did exactly what you did after i read shirer's last chapters. when i read and read more on the person himself and not the achivements, i started to become a little sceptical. I got back to the topic only after many months (this article was written about a year back actually) and then started looking from far above to notice that the volume of good Gandhiji did was so much compared to the miniscule amount of negatives.
Ms Cris said…
Among the posts I read so far, this was the best post for Gandhi Jayanthi! Thank you. Yes I will check that book and the other 2 as well. I have read none of those though "My experiments with truth" have been talked about a lot.
Happy Kitten said…
Pranam Maddy.....

That was a great one about Mahatma...

The present world steeped in materialism and consumerism finds it hard to accept Gandhiji and the prinicples that he stood for.. he could have continued to wear his lawyer's gown and lead a very comfortable life (akin to the Goras) but instead he united our country and gave it a single voice.

and these days I wish we had at least one leader trying to be like him...

It is not easy to be a Gandhiji or Mother Theresa.. let us face that fact...but it is very easy to point out their flaws.

I wish we Indians would try to at least learn from them.

Even I tried to read about this great man while trying to understand his critics.. I find that none of his critics have any right to raise them, unless they show the world they have something better to offer.
kallu said…
Wonderful, Maddy. we need to keep hearing about him again and again. And each time, we see and understand a different facet. As Einstein said Generations to come will not believe such a man walked this earth.
Maddy said…
Ms Cris, Kallu - thanks a lot for your comments.

HK - Yes, it is a wonder that he chose to move out of the barristers gown to a hard life wearing a dhoti...Was it mainly the hurt to the ego due to being chucked out of the 1st class compartment? sometimes as they say it requires only a straw to break the camels back..But then there will always be critics like there will be aye sayers..
Anonymous said…
Gandhi was the most inspiring person of the 20th century. And we have forgotten his idealism, his sincerity, his humility - we want to remember his failures, his weaknesses so that we can forgive ourselves our weaknesses and failures. But we forget that like us, he was was only human, but unlike us he tried to rise above his weaknesses. We are human and justify our weaknesses. Gandhi did not. The greatest quality in Gandhi was his striving towards truth, in every sense of the word. And he was prepared to look fearlessly at his own character -he did not judge yours! His life was an open book and we have to read it carefully. We have much to learn from it. So read about him, understand him and bring back to our country the ideals he stood for. Bring Gandhi back into our lives. Begin with small things. Like learning tolerance. Like understanding and doing more than just sympathizing with the poor. Take small, baby steps in the right direction and it will transform our lives and the lives of those around us.