This magnum opus by Ramachandra Guha , the first of the two books on the Life of Gandhi is a truly amazing book on Gandhi.I have read a fair share of books on Gandhi notably Louis Fischer book on Gandhi, controversial book Great Soul which mischievously suggested that Gandhi could have been Gay. This book stands out for its truly remarkable and objective treatment on the early life of Gandhi in South Africa.
It gloriously captures the travel of how Gandhi from a orthodox Hindu background overcome so many of his limitations to be what he was political activist, prophet of interfaith harmony, a Mahatma.
The book greatest strength lies in Guha’s vision of not just relying on the Collected Works of Gandhi. In this process Guha has unearthed new material on Gandhi’s life.
Right from the childhood when Gandhi was a mediocre student in school, who’s favourite pastime was to twist the ears of stray dogs. The book details the early childhood , his family background, his mediocre school education and so on.
Gandhi’s first turning point in life was when he crossed the Kala Pani to study for Law in London. This opened the gates to the world , he started befriending people from the Vegetarian society in London. Here is where he got trained to write articles on the journal of Vegetarian society, where he got introduced to the benefits of vegetarian diet. This got him initiated to his life long experiments with diet. Gandhi also met with his first mentor Henry Salt who had sizeable impact on the life of young Gandhi.
Gandhi during the time was still a staunch loyalist to the British Education, their sense of Justice and dressing and so on. He was also forced to live a life of frugality due to the precarious financial situation of his family. He constantly thought about reducing his needs to lead a life.
Gandhi also befriended many white men and women which made him free of any racial prejudice and the white hatred so many of Indians seems to have was noticeably absent in Gandhi.
Return to India:
Gandhi returned to India after becoming Barrister-at-Law, he landed at Bombay. He met with Raychand bhai a relative of Gandhi’s London friend Dr.Prajivan Mehta.
Guha amazingly captures the impact Raychand had on yound Gandhi.
Gandhi himself captures the impact of Raychand after 30 years.
Gandhi seems to have communicated with Raychand whenever in doubts related to religion and spirituality on which he was constantly learning during his South African times.
During his stay at Gandhi he was a failure and his effort to establish a practice in Bombay didn’t materialise.
To South Africa:
Gandhi travelled to South Africa to represent a Mohammedan merchant named Dada Abdulla from Gujarat. Gandhi by that time never would have expected his stay in South Africa would be so radical and life changing event. He arrived at Durban , and the case of Dada Abdulla was happening in Boer Controlled South Africa also know as Transvaal.
Gandhi proceeded to Transvaal in train in first class coach.
Here he had to undergo the harrowing experience of pushed out of the train in Petermaritzburg station by Railway official.Although this seems to be an important event in Gandhi’s life Guha claims that there was another event when Gandhi arrived with his family and he was attacked by British mob in broad daylight. That event seems to have affected Gandhi’s life more comparatively.
Gandhi and Friends:
Gandhi met with amazing friends in South Africa who formed his inner circle. People who had deep impact on his life.
He got introduced to heterodox Christian texts , and also book by Tolstoy “The Kingdom of God is within You”. This along with the book “Unto the last” had lasting impacts on his life. Both these books were suggested to him by his friends in South Africa.
Guha showcases the nature of Gandhi to make friends from different religions, community,class, gender in South Africa. He had friends from Jews (Kallenbach , Polak) , Christians (Doke , Ritch), Hindus belonging to different caste(Thambi Naidoo), women like Mille Polak and Sonja Schlesin. These people altered Gandhi’s opinion and outlook on many things. They were also his soldiers in the passive resistance movement. They went to jail separated from their families for months together, left for far away places and lobbied with people on the South African Indian questions, run his
office and coordinate all the activities and so on.
Guha excellently showcases how Gandhi with his austere living, hard work , honesty in conviction inspired people far and away in South Africa. He was able to make an unified struggle with such heterogeneous people.
Gandhi and Personal Experiments:
Gandhi during this time was also undergoing tremendous self spiritual transformation. Inspired by the vision of Ruskin to live a life of physical labour. Gandhi wanted to renounce his profession and lead a life of a farmer. To this regard he had setup the Phoenix farm in Natal. Gandhi reduced his diet to fruits and nuts, wanted a life without personal property, he made a vow of Bhramacharya an abstinence from sex. He was also professing such life to all his fellow followers.
Guha writing on Gandhi’s personal experiments talks about how it all became vital to the idea of Gandhi to lead a life being the leader of Passive resistance. Going to the jail for Gandhi was nearly the same to the life he was practising outside with respect to the comforts. Guha rightly quotes E.M.S Namboodripaad critique of Gandhi’s association with Vegetarian society as the most ‘reactionary’ and ‘obscurantist’. E.M.S had compared Gandhi with Lenin whom during the time was translating Marx’s work to Russian.
This shows one thing Gandhi was never carried away by philosophies which were considered fashionable of the age. Marxism was considered the ‘opium of the intellectuals’, Gandhi’s whole life is an effort to free himself of any addiction.
Making Of Mahatama
Gandhi was riding multiple horses , he was the leader of the Indian cause in South Africa, was running two farms one in Natal and the other in Johanesburg. He was mentoring children in these farm which include his own sons. He was also running into rough weather the relationship he had with his elder son Harilal.
Harilal was highly critical of Gandhi not allowing him to pursue his education which he thought was critical for him.
Gandhi himself was critical of British education at that time.
Kasturba had physical ailments and she was suffering from not being with her husband for such long time.
He was also facing opposition from rival Indian leaders who criticised Gandhi for falling short of all the demands.
The whites in South Africa were not so much hateful of Asiatics and Gandhi had to face abusive and hateful articles on him written in South African press.The above predicaments are all poignantly captured in the book.
Gandhi overcome all these obstacles and in the process made himself who we know him to be.
Guha’s book quotes letters written by Gandhi and his friends, his articles on Indian opinion, the criticisms levelled against him White press and also at times by his rivals. The book also captures what his peers were talking about , the general mood of South African whites to the rights of Asiatics and so on. This helps understand Gandhi in a better dimension.