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Chronicling the roving Mahatma

Chronicling the roving Mahatma
The only time that Mahatma Gandhi is actively remembered by young Indians is perhaps a day before his birthday. One day before Gandhi Jayanti, hoards of men assemble outside liquor shops, holding pieces of paper with Gandhi’s picture on them trying to stock up for the dreaded day to follow. Similarly, campuses are awash with fashionable young men who say that they hate Gandhi for reasons which are at their worst unintelligible and at their best vague. Clearly, when young Indians remember Gandhi, it is a very utilitarian remembrance. Given that in demographic terms, India is a fairly young country, this does not bode too well for the idea of Gandhi.

In this specific context to examine Gandhi, to talk about his ideals, might seem anachronistic. Most biographers of Gandhi claim that they wrote about this man because embracing his ideals are the need of hour and it is essential that we all try to imbue lessons from this modern day saint’s lives.

These of course are euphemisms peddled with the covert aim of selling hagiographies masquerading as books.

Perhaps the more honest and challenging aspiration for a biographer to have would be to make Gandhi seem more relatable. Ramachandra Guha in his book Gandhi before India succeeds in accomplishing this onerous task. In a book which is both intimate and erudite, Guha fleshes out the much ignored formative years of Gandhi in Porbandar, Rajkot, Bombay, London, Durban and Johannesburg. The book opens with tracing the genealogy and the geographical heritage of Gandhi (he was a Gujarati Bania). It then moves onto chronicle the school years of Gandhi where as Guha points out he did not distinguish himself and was unarguably a below average student. The reader is informed that Gandhi when he was a child, spent his time twisting the ears of stray dogs and may have even taken some delight in doing so.

This piece of trivia brought an instant smile to my face. Married at a young age, Gandhi leaves behind his young wife in order to go abroad and become a lawyer. He is excommunicated from his orthodox community for doing so. Upon arrival in London , Gandhi struggles to find a suitable vegetarian diet and more often than not, goes hungry. It is in the acquaintance of fellow vegetarians in London and the fervent espousal of vegetarianism that Gandhi finally finds his voice.

The spiritual convictions of this young Gandhi are shaped by a Jain monk, Raychandbhai. It is hard to imagine Gandhi as an impressionable young man but by capturing the relationship between Gandhi and Raychandbhai, Guha illuminates the roots of Gandhi’s philosophical convictions. An unlikely mentor of Gandhi was the Russian author Leo Tolstoy. After reading the Russian’s
The Kingdom of God is within you
the young Gandhi is prompted to adopt a pluralism which would become the hallmark of his political advocacy in the days to come.

In the annals of history more often than not the supporters and followers go unsung. By recording the lives and personalities of Gandhi’s staunchest supporters and advisors like Henry Polak, Pranjivan Mehta, Parsee Rustomjee, Hermann Kallenbach and Thambi Naidoo Guha illustrates the wide variety of influences and council he had at hand during his years in South Africa.

The book also  provides an important corrective. Popular perception maintains that the eviction of Gandhi from the train in Pietermaritzburg is what made him wake and smell the coffee and mold him into a political activist. This however is a linear and very simplistic narrative. It was the attack on Gandhi by a bunch of white supremacists when he landed in Durban which had a significantly deeper impact on his psyche.

It was the collective anger of virtually all the white folks in Durban rather than the racism of one lone ticket checker in Pietermaritzburg which made Gandhi in sync with the racial power balance of his time.

The most delightful anecdote of this book is also the most speculative. Fifty or so years before Independence, MA Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi were in correspondence. Probably in talks of setting up a partnership.

What would have happened if they indeed had? What would have happened if Laxmidas Gandhi had not destroyed his brothers chances of becoming a Diwan just like his father Karamchand (Kaba Gandhi)? Perhaps the history of India would have been radically different.

Gandhi before India throws light on the evolution a man who was much more pluralistic, ecumenical and persuasive than his detractors give him credit for. Bereft of the intimidating jargon which characterises most modern day works of history, Gandhi before India is an eminently accessible book. It is a book which those curious about Gandhi must definitely read.
D Nikhil

D Nikhil

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