Looking at Gandhi before India — across three continents with writer Ramachandra Guha

India-Book/Politics

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By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi —invoked worldwide as the Mahatma and as the father of the Indian nation — grew up as a nationalist in four distinct environments: As a child with a secular outlook in Gujarat, a student of law in a progressive London society that flourished a little away from the glitter of the mainstream British society, a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist South Africa and as the vanguard of “peaceful resistance” and “satyagraha” in British India, steering the nation on the road to Independence.

Noted writer, commentator and historian Ramachandra Guha believes that Gandhi’s unique status was influenced by the fact that he “worked in three different countries- Britain, South Africa and India — spanning three continents. In his new treatise, “Gandhi Before India”, an account of Gandhi’s pre-India years (a loose prequel of his Gandhi biography, “India After Gandhi), Guha      reconstructs the early years of the Mahatma till his departure from South Africa to India from contemporary historical sources with a combination of historical narratives, anecdotal episodes, accounts from various biographies and archival material to bring out the “apparent inconsistencies and contradictions” that set Gandhi apart from the rest of his peers in pre-and post Independence India. Gandhi’s global outlook as a non-violent protestor, reformer, thinker, writer, polity expert and warrior was a consequence of his exposures to “several world cultures and cross-sections of people”. It bred in him the statesmanship of a visionary that none could achieve.  

The writer describes his book as a “sprint down the memory lane to resurrect an odd cast of characters in India, London and Africa who have been forgotten in the onward tide of history”. They moulded young Gandhi – an impressionable idealist — in a way that set the course for his future. The eclectic crew of inspirations included his family in Rajkot in Gujarat where he grew up as a school boy, friends in London, the journal of the Vegetarian Society (The Vegetarian of London) and a host of British and India settlers in the transformative South Africa.

Guha turns his attention to almost “every episode” in Gandhi’s life life during his years abroad in the context of the larger socio-political and cultural canvas (and movements) of the places where he worked. In course of chronicling the “Mahatma”, the writer dispels one myth about the “essential Indian-ness of Gandhi”. The “satyagrahi” who is identified in the collective consciousness of the globe down the decades as the “traditional brown native clad in a loincloth — a frail little man with a spartan lifestyle, high thinking and espousing seemingly Herculean epoch-making causes” was a cosmopolitan by soul.

His pan-Indian philosophy was rooted in his global citizenship – an idea of India coloured by the events around the world at large — wide, liberal, just, fair and inclusive.

Gandhi had been an enduring muse for Guha for more than a decade — when he began to investigate Gandhi’s role for an earlier account, “India After Gandhi” (2007).

The current volume cleans the dust off mountains of archival material in three continents — in ferreting out several startling and offbeat revelations about the life of Gandhi. “Gandhi was among other things an extraordinary prolific writer,” Guha says.

He (Gandhi) wrote extensively about his own life and works in biographical essays, journals, correspondence,] articles and books— sources which make up much of Guha’s resource base. A lot of the material comes from the first 12 volumes of the “Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi” followed by “Collected Works” which reproduces letters written by Gandhi to Herman Kallenbach, Henry and Millie Polack and Albert West. The third source were the “papers of Gandhi’s friends and associates”.

“All through out my professional life, I have encountered Gandhi. He had been part of my life as a historian of modern India – and I chose to settle the account,” the writer says. He makes a deliberate “attempt” to move beyond the public persona of the “legend” in the new volume to capture the “soul of the man behind the public figure”.   

Gandhi – as the boy and the young adolescent with human failings — comes alive in accounts of his school days by a retired school master in two series written in 1966. Guha unearths the details to reveal the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as a “mediocre – or a rather chequered — student” in school in Kathiawar (Rajkot). However, his poor elementary school performance picked credible steam by the time Mohandas was ready to go to London to study law.  Billed as the “best bet” in the family of low literacy, Mohandas, however, failed to live up to his brood’s “big money” aspirations.  

Mother Putlibai’s youngest son, Mohandas was born in a “dark room in a two-storied home in Porbandar” in 1869. The family led by “diwan” (royal minister) Kaba Gandhi moved to Rajkot in 1874.    

“To begin with the boy’s attendance was spotty in the calendar year 1879. He went to school for only 110 days out of the 238 days. This showed in the results of his final examination where Mohandas was placed in the lower half of the class”.

School was Gandhi’s stepping stone to the notion of “pluralism” –religious and racial openness — that were the beacons of his later years  carrying him through London and South Africa. A secular Mohandas befriended Sheikh Mahtab — a Muslim classmate. “There were no Christian boys in Kathiawar High School, but there were several Parsis as well as few Muslims,” Guha says in his book. It was a friendship based on contradictions — between the meat-eating and sporty Mahtab and the meek vegetarian boy (Gandhi).

An early marriage to Kasturba at 13 lent him an unexpected maturity — taking him through the conjugal chores as a teenager when he was obsessed with loving his wife and later “experimenting with celibacy”. The young Mohandas was busy romancing his wife the night his father passed away, Guha records in his book. Gandhi “regrets his lust” later.       

In London, where Gandhi was probably the lone representative from the Gujarati Baniya (trading class) community to study for barristership at the prestigious Inner Temple Inn, the young man boarded (shared rooms) with a Briton Josiah Oldfield. The duo hosted “cerebral” dinner parties for like-minded friends — that doubled as “platforms for social activism”.  “While in London, Gandhi learnt to work as a group and how to mobilize (opinion for a cause),” Guha says.

His education was funded by older brother— a shifty character — Laxmidas. The one-and-a half year that Gandhi spent in London exposed him to British politics and offered insights into the workings of the imperial mind.

The usual pleasures of the 19th century London society — sports and theatre— did not lure young Mohandas. But he found a worthy cause in promotion of vegetarianism at the Vegetarian Society Journal. He wrote several articles about Indian vegetarianism and found new British friends in the society. Gandhi was inspired by the likes of Henry Salt, Dadabhai Naoroji, Pranjivan Mehta ( a Gujarati doctor) and Charles Bradlaugh. He read the Bible (and the Koran later in life) and discoursed with the theosophists, Guha says in his book.

Upon his return to Bombay, he set up a legal practice much to the anger of Bombay’s Modh Banias, who resented Gandhi’s crossing of the “black waters” to the west. He divided his time between Bombay and Rajkot till destiny offered him a passage to South Africa as a lawyer to plead a “commercial case” of an immigrant businessman in 1893.  

Gandhi’s tenure in South Africa occupies much of the book- beginning with his activity as a lawyer in Durban making way to a franchise crusader (lobbying for the voting rights of native Indians) and then a “anti-apartheid” activist after an incident (known as the watershed) in which he was pulled out of the first-class compartment of a train at Pietermaritzburg. It also heralded a new phase in the lawyer’s life — a growing up process during which Gandhi’s resilience (and efficacy) as an intelligent mover of mass opinion honed itself into brilliant leadership skills.  

“Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa were astonishingly varied and always intense. Life in Durban and Johannesburg and at the Pheonix and the Tolstoy Farm (he was an admirer of writer Leo Tolstoy), in court, in jail, on the road and in the train gave him a deeper understanding about what divided (or united) human beings in general and Indians in particular,” Guha says in his book.

Two decades in the diaspora gave him the eyes to see and the tools to use when he came back home. “As a writer, editor, healer, bridge, builder and social reformer, exemplar, political reformer and theorist — he returned to India fully formed and fully primed to carry out these callings on a far wider historical scale,”  Guha points out.

Years of “harassment and vilification at the hands of the Boers (African white settlers of Dutch origin) and Britons did not deter him from seeking the human nature whether residing in a brown-skinned or a white-skinned body”, the writer observes.

To properly understand Gandhi, you have to look at him from the perspective friends and fellows— “the secondary cast of characters”. “An equally interesting cast of characters (like Kellenbach, Joseph Doke, Sonja Schlesin, Tamil radical Thambi Naidoo) shaped him in SA,” Guha explains. A Gujarati doctor, Pranjivan Mehta, for example, was “Engels to Gandhi’s Marx — the *former being the latter’s chief patron and supporter”, the writer said in a lighter vein.            

 If a wee overpopulated with characters and events for the lay reders to keep up with the stream of narrative (sometime too closely spaced), the volume is a definitive addition to the archive of Gandhi research pool— a subject which assumes relevance today across the world in the face of the conflicts of ideologies and violent insurrections that marks the change of geopolitical orders.

Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, Communist China, the leaders of the Arab Spring  and the commanders of the great democracies across the world have all sworn by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi at some point of time or the other.      

(Gandhi Before India has been published by Penguin-India. Priced Rs 899)    

    

    

 

   

   

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