Picture the Mahatma-in-waiting at a smart London hotel in 1909. He is many things at once, a Gandhi we know less well. Aged 40, the lawyer has spent most of his adult life outside India and is heading a “deputation” from South Africa, lobbying the colonial power.
He sees it as a betrayal of British values for Indians to be made to carry a certificate of registration, and he has recently been imprisoned for civil disobedience, paraded through Johannesburg in a convict’s yellow jacket, pursued by Tamil supporters.
In London, Indians can become barristers or MPs, but in the colony of Natal they are not even permitted to cross the border into the Transvaal. Mohandas Gandhi is received by senior government ministers; wearing a tailcoat, he preaches moderation to a meeting of Indian revolutionaries; he woos English journalists, and sends a letter to Leo Tolstoy enclosing a hagiography of himself.
Already, there are signs of the later man. He checks up on the newspaper he runs and on progress at his rural commune near Durban, informing his son Manilal that “a person who marries in order to satisfy his carnal desire is lower than even the beast”. He is strict about the diet and conduct of others; a table in his large hotel suite is covered in grapes, oranges and monkey nuts.
Gandhi seems, oddly, the most modern of his near contemporaries. Ataturk, Clemenceau, Smuts — none have generated such convincing adjectives. “Scotland’s campaign for independence must be Gandhian in its ambition,” wrote an advocate recently in the Guardian. No other historical figure could be invoked so easily: this is the Gandhi we can all admire, the brilliant political strategist.
Whenever possible he had private negotiations with those in power, offering them a compromise and inveigling them into his own narrative, and moving forward to fresh demands each time he took a victory.
It is not hard to picture him today, staff in hand, leading a march or inspiring countless others to follow a cause, perhaps enjoying the adulation of Bono. Although Gandhi never actually said “be the change you want to see”, it is the sort of resonant T-shirt slogan he ought to have uttered.
This public, mythologised Gandhi runs in parallel with continuing scholarly interest in his ideas and tactics. Faisal Devji portrays him in “The Impossible Indian” (published in 2012) as a radical thinker; the Yale political scientist Karuna Mantena sees him as a realist who used non-violence for transformative political effect.
Gandhi’s life has been so carefully chronicled that it did not occur to me there was more material to be discovered, as opposed to interpreted. One of the surprises in “Gandhi Before India” (the title is a nod to the author’s superb post-independence history, “India After Gandhi”) is just how much fresh material it contains.
Guha has a gift for tracking down obscure letters and newspaper reports and patching them together to make history come alive. The Indian government spent 40 years assembling Gandhi’s collected works, but seems to have excluded a great deal.
The book turns up some gems: one of young Gandhi’s favourite pastimes, while roaming the streets of Porbandar in Gujarat, was twisting the ears of dogs; he was in touch with his rival Mohammad Ali Jinnah a decade earlier than was previously known; and some of the correspondence between Gandhi and his circle of friends is most revealing. Guha deftly observes that his community, the Gujarati banias, are known for being frugal, non-confrontational and are “renowned for their smooth tongue”.
Like earlier writers, the author invests much energy in trying to show that Gandhi never [made love] with anyone other than Mrs Gandhi. He certainly had weird, manipulative flirtations with young unmarried women — characterised here as “paternal” — and was the father from hell, refusing to let his sons be educated and forcing them to take vows of celibacy that they inevitably failed to keep.
Gandhi’s belief was that everyone who followed him should give up meat, alcohol and smoking, and take up fasting. Guha claims that concerns over his fixation on celibacy and refusal to consult his wife Kasturba about it are a western obsession, but this neglects the doubts many Indian colleagues such as Nehru had.
“Gandhi Before India” demonstrates how complicated cross-cultural relations were in the 19th century. Several of Gandhi’s promoters were free thinking British Jews who identified with his fight against injustice; but he was also backed by crusty empire stalwarts such as Sir Lepel Griffin, who thought “the prejudice against the Indians is encouraged, by the aliens, by Russian Jews, by Syrians, by German Jews”.
The Bombay steel magnate Sir Ratan Tata sent a cheque in support of the cause, saying Gandhi and his fellows were trying, “in the face of monstrous injustice and oppression, to assert their rights as citizens of the empire”.
The political arguments over South Africa ran back and forth. When Gandhi moved there in 1893, he was not anticipating racial bitterness. During his London days, his friends had mainly been English vegetarians, dissenters and theosophists. Now, he found himself ranked alongside coolies.
The British empire, conceiving of itself as an engine of progress, liked to set up “responsible government” in its colonies, where the better class of settlers would be allowed to run a legislature that answered to the mother country. But what if it passed illiberal laws, such as the Natal rule that said Indians were not allowed to vote? For the colonial secretary in 1894, Lord Ripon, this was “naked exclusion in terms of race” and should be avoided. Gandhi lobbied Natal legislators and wrote to a Liberal MP of Indian origin in Westminster, stressing “there is not the slightest probability of the government of the natives passing from the Europeans to the Indians”.
South Africa was the crucible in which his careful, incremental strategies of resistance were formed. His associate Henry Polak was not alone in regarding him before he became world famous as “the greatest Asiatic of his time”.
It took Gandhi decades to realise the British were usually stalling when they promised equality; as soon as non-whites began to benefit, they changed the rules. The Boers were more blatant in their racism, but perhaps less duplicitous then the Whitehall grandees: they made it clear they had conquered the land and did not want Indians there.
During the Zulu rebellion of 1906, which Gandhi called the “revolt of the Kaffirs”, he sided with the British empire. Later, aware that Indians were losing their rights, he mobilised labourers in South Africa’s plantations and mines to extraordinary effect. Even the viceroy of India was converted to his cause.
“Gandhi Before India” is a work of vivid social history as well as biography. It largely follows the authorised, conservative version of Gandhi: when there is a doubt, he is given its benefit. The indigenous people who formed the overwhelming majority of the population of South Africa remain nearly invisible in Gandhi’s life. He regarded them as barbarians who lived in “indolence and nakedness”. On a rare occasion when he used the word “Africans”, rather than “natives” or “kaffirs”, it was while speaking to a white audience at the Johannesburg YMCA.
Guha deals with this subject gingerly, describing Gandhi’s extraordinary capaciousness as being “constrained in one fundamental sense” because he had no professional or social interaction with black people during the two decades or more he lived in Africa.
The point is not that someone born in the 19th century should be expected to have 21st-century racial attitudes: it is that, even by the reformist standards of his own time, he was regressive. Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology.
A few months before the outbreak of the First World War, the campaigner and his family sailed back to India to pursue his destiny. He had meetings with Gujarati merchants, indentured Indian labourers and white officials. Addresses were presented to him by Muslims and Parsis, by the Cantonese Club and the Tamil Benefit Society.
He attended a dinner hosted by the Hon H.A. Wyndham, at which aubergine cutlets, asparagus a la vinaigrette and plum tart were served. In a farewell speech, he told them he hoped “the Europeans of South Africa would take a humanitarian and imperial view of the Indian question”. But he said goodbye to not a single African. “To them alone were Gandhi’s connections too slight to merit a formal and public farewell,” notes his biographer.
Yet for all this, the idiom of non-violent resistance he developed was to become an inspiration for generations of black leaders: Du Bois, King, Mandela — they all invoked him. When Barack Obama first became a senator, it was Gandhi’s portrait he hung in his office.
Guardian News & Media Ltd
Patrick French’s books include “The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of V.S. Naipaul”.