Gandhi Before India
Rs. 899, PP673
You are frankly dismayed when Ramachandra Guha's Gandhi Before India lands on your desk. At 561 pages with an additional 68 pages of notes this is a hefty volume. You wonder if it has any fresh material about the 'Father of the nation' whose life has been closely studied by scholars across the world. "Very little has been written about Gandhi's early years, his time in England and in South Africa. People tend to think that his real work began in India and that the earlier years weren't as important," says Guha when you meet him at the India International Centre in Delhi.
His book then doesn't deal with the iconic Gandhi, the saintly figure in a loincloth who defied the salt tax and marched unafraid into communal conflagrations restoring peace with his mere presence. It introduces us instead to the hyperactive child, the average schoolboy, the underaged husband, the teenager who ventures into a brothel with his best friend but abruptly leaves aghast at what he sees, the impeccably dressed law student in London, the Gokhale acolyte, the editor of the Indian Opinion in South Africa, the activist who unites the diverse communities of the Indian diaspora there, and eventually, the leader who forged the weapon of passive resistance.
Guha notes the diverse philosophical strands - the beliefs of the Jain savant Raychandbhai, the pacifism of Leo Tolstoy, his mother Putlibai's deep religiosity, the teachings of the Gita, and Christ's Sermon on the Mount - that influenced Gandhi's thought, and acquaints the reader with his close friends of the period. "We are seeing Gandhi through contemporaries, through people who knew him," says Guha who took four years to write the book but has been following the trail through archives in India, UK, Israel, the US and South Africa for much longer.
Many of those who worked alongside Gandhi have been forgotten and the names of Henry Polak, Sonja Schlesin, Parsee Rustomjee, HO Ally and Hajee Habib, sadly, don't survive even as street names. The one exception, though, is Thambi Naidoo, Gandhi's Tamil lieutenant who was imprisoned several times. "He is still remembered in South Africa because his family, over generations, became involved in the anti-apartheid movement," says Guha who points out that many of Gandhi's staunchest European supporters were Jews and non-conformist Christians who had themselves faced racism and religious persecution.
Gandhi's experiments in communal living at the Phoenix Settlement and at Tolstoy Farm, his difficult relationships with Kasturba - "towards the end there was companionship, perhaps even love" - and his first born Harilal whose ambitions he thwarted at every turn, his close friendship with Pranjivan Mehta, the man who first called him 'Mahatma' and whose married daughter Jeki Mehta caused a scandal by having an affair with Gandhi's second son Manilal, are all part of this surprisingly easy-to-read volume.
What sets it apart from other recent biographies like Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul... that touched on Gandhi's views of Africans and referred to the homoerotic nature of his close friendship with Hermann Kallenbach is Guha's resolutely non-scurrilous perspective. "People pick things he said in the 1890s when he first went to Africa but Gandhi's ideas evolved and by the 1920s and 30s he was writing that Indians and Africans had a common cause," he says.
Decades after his death, frozen as he is in our minds as a toothless prophet, a deep stream of national nostalgia for 'Bapu' continues to influence everything from anti-corruption movements like Anna Hazare's to popular films like Munnabhai MBBS. Guha's work might not find favour with Ambedkarites leery of Gandhi's upper caste paternalism but for the average reader this is an enriching read. What emerges in the end, with the slow magic of a film being developed in an old fashioned dark room, is a sharp picture of the intellectual growth of a remarkable man.