Gandhi & Churchill (Arthur Herman)

I found this in the Great Mangawhai Book Fair, (don’t miss it) and took it with me on holiday to read on planes and in hotels. I had my doubts as it is a substantial book and not the sort of thing I usually read. Somewhat to my surprise, I found it utterly absorbing and ‘read every word’ including the foot-notes.

As the sub-title suggests, it charts the “Epic rivalry” between Gandhi and Churchill – they only met once, briefly, but despised each other, principally of course over the fate of India. This is a ‘warts and all’ portrayal of two of history’s greats and although their achievements were monumental, to say the least, both had their dark sides and their foibles and from time to time both plunged into the disastrous.

The book charts the development of both Churchill and Gandhi from their beginnings, Churchill, born to privilege, struggling throughout his life to please a distant and coldly disapproving father; Gandhi, born in humble circumstances in India. Churchill climbing the path to fame and notoriety, craving action during the Boer War; Gandhi commencing his life of political activism as a result of his experiences of prejudice and oppression in South Africa.

Churchill, it becomes evident, was markedly bi-polar in his character, at times having a manic energy, which lifted him into the realms of genius and at times plunging into deep depressions, which he referred to as his ‘black dog.’ Not being much of a historian, I had no idea how thoroughly Churchill was despised by many of his contemporaries, not the least because of his tremendous cock-ups, which cost many people their lives during war years. Likewise I had no idea how touch and go the decision was to install him as Prime Minister during World War Two. Gandhi, on the other hand, genius in his own way, often comes across as a foolish and petulant old man, trying to take India on a giant leap backwards (no hospitals, no medicines, no schools, no railways etc.) They clashed repeatedly over India, Churchill making every effort to maintain the British empire; Gandhi doing everything he could to end it. (The sometimes less than favourable portrayal of Gandhi has infuriated some of his ardent followers and the discussion on Amazon makes interesting reading!)

The lives of both protagonists are set within the broad sweep of the history of their times. In places, the events related are truly, gut-wrenchingly horrific. Arthur H. has, I think done a magnificent job of bringing Churchill, Gandhi and their contemporaries to colourful life, as well as charting the intertwined fates of the British Empire and India, World War Two, the partition of India and the events leading to Gandhi’s assassination.

This is a book I would like to own, however weight and bulk dictated that it remain in Vancouver. I hope others find it as enjoyable and as enlightening as I did.

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