Reviewed by Julia Jones Headteachers do like to have the last word. In the concluding chapter of this first volume of biography, Ramachandra Guha quotes a Gujarati headmaster who had unearthed the Mahatma's early school records. They were not impressive – the young Gandhi’s attendance had been erratic and his academic performance indifferent. “Gandhiji” wrote the headteacher-archivist, “could fashion heroes out of common clay. His first and, undoubtedly, his most successful experiment was with himself.”
Gandhi Before India reports the process. These are the Mahatma's formative years. Ramachandra Guha is particularly good on the “what-ifs”. What if Gandhi’s father had not died young – would the 19 year old Mohandas have been allowed to travel to England to study law? Those three years in London, building friendships with Theosophists and vegetarians and listening to Charles Bradlaugh in the House of Commons, was an extraordinary piece of personal development for a middle-caste Bania from the Kathiawar peninsula in Gujerat. What if Mohandas's older brother hadn't become involved in a scandal, thus blocking the family's advancement at home and what if Gandhi’s attempts to set himself up as a Bombay lawyer had succeeded? What if he had never become sufficiently desperate as to take the only job on offer – representing Dada Abdulla and Sons, Muslim traders in South Africa? Gandhi lived and worked in South Africa for most of the period 1893 – 1914. There was one more attempt (in early 1902) to establish himself as a lawyer in Bombay but it too was unsuccessful. When the Natal Indian Congress asked Gandhi to return to the Transvaal to help represent them to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain – triumphant at the end of the Boer war – he accepted at once. “In truth,” comments Guha, “the decision to leave for South Africa was mandated not by the mysterious ways of fate but by the mundane facts of failure.”
The style of this biography is calm, flowing, judicial. It's the product of years of intensive and scrupulously detailed research and is as unsensational as such a profoundly sensational story can be. Yet, as a reader, I found myself completely gripped by the narrative and sitting up late at might to turn another page. As a biographer Guha walks with Gandhi, mapping the development of his thought and activism, not in any ideological vacuum but in the context of the new people he met, the ideas he absorbed and the social injustices and political betrayals that made him radical and developed his extraordinary powers of leadership. It is compelling, convincing and startling.
Perhaps I reveal my own previous ignorance of this period of Gandhi’s life when I choose that word? Among the aspects I found startling were Gandhi’s unflagging politeness and respect for the British leaders and the South African General Smuts with whom he had to deal. I admired his unselfconscious gift for friendship and was amazed by the ecumenical variety of the people who were closest to him – he was supported by Jews and Christians,Tamils, Muslims, Parsis and Jains. I had no idea at all of the role played by the Chinese community in the struggle against white oppression in South Africa. Guha makes the point that Gandhi did not engage with the African population to any significant extent but the techniques of resistance that he pioneered during this period remain available and potent to all who are oppressed.
Before I read this biography I had tended to think of passive resistance as hugely courageous but, well ... passive. The techniques of satyagraha as developed by Gandhi and his multi-ethnic colleagues were planned and provocative – they publicly burned their registration documents, they set themselves up as unlicensed hawkers, they went on strike, they marched across boundaries – deliberately inciting arrest. This process, even more than any political concessions achieved, is Gandhi's enduring legacy. Guha quotes the Nobel laureate Liu Xiabao, “In order to secure 'passive freedom' – freedom from state oppression – there needs to be a will to do active resistance. History is not fated. The appearance of a single martyr can fundamentally turn the spirit of a nation and strengthen its moral fibre. Gandhi was such a figure.”
Expressed in the context of family relationships, however, the power of elective martyrdom is terrifying. At home Gandhi's weapon of choice was the fast. When his nearest and dearest strayed from the paths of righteousness he was inclined to assert that it was clearly some fault of his own and would then punish himself by refusing food. A particularly disturbing element in the extended family community was Jeki Mehta, daughter of one of Gandhi's oldest friends and a young woman living apart from her husband. She had an affair with the Gandhis' second son, Manilal. When Manilal finally confessed to his father, Gandhi decided to fast for a week, thus heaping guilt and grief on his son far more effectively than if he had raged and threatened in a conventional paterfamilias style. A further disagreement over Jeki in the following year caused an epic quarrel between Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. “The more I spoke the more vicious she became,” he complained, sounding like any whingeing husband. A week later, however, after another incident which proved Kasturba right in her assessment of Jeki's disruptive influence, Gandhi condemned himself to a two week fast. “This fast has brought me as near death's door. I can still hardly crawl, can eat very little, restless nights, mouth bad […] Mrs Gandhi was divine. Immediately she realised there was no turning me back she set about making my path smooth. She forgot her own sorrows and became my ministering angel.”
What else could the poor woman do? I look forward to the second volume and tremble for the British in India.