The Woman Who Knew Gandhi
Exploring whether love between a man and a woman can exist outside of physical intimacy, this novel imagines a lifelong relationship between a very ordinary woman –Martha – and an extraordinary man – Mahatma Gandhi. In his autobiography, Gandhi mentions an Englishwoman he met in his youth. Keith Heller uses this reference to create a fascinating story of letters winging back and forth between India and a tiny English village, and of too-short reunions during Gandhi’s infrequent visits to Britain. This is the backdrop. Most of the novel focuses on how Martha, now in her seventies, copes with the disclosure of her relationship with a man that her people alternately revere and despise. Samuel, her husband, learns for the first time that another man – and a foreign, controversial one at that – shared with Martha in a manner he seemed unable to match. And Martha’s three adult children fail to understand why she must travel to India to meet with Gandhi’s son some months after Gandhi’s assassination.
Absorbing, entirely plausible, deep without being obscure, this is a novel to read and read again. Heller’s descriptions of post-WWII England and of Bombay shortly after Independence brought me into the era and place. Using these two locales and cultures, his novel exposes the subtle barriers so often erected between peoples of differing race and creed. Most of all, it questions how we compartmentalize relationships and how we define love.