Gandhi Before India
By Ramachandra Guha. Random House Canada, 673 pp, hardcover
In Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi, there's a dramatic scene of actor Ben Kingsley, playing the young Indian lawyer, being tossed out of the first-class section at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station in South Africa.
In the movie and in one of Gandhi's biographies, this incident is presented as a pivotal moment in Mohandas Gandhi's life, propelling him on a path of nonviolent activism. It culminated in him being called the Mahatma, or Great Soul, and leading the Indian independence movement.
As Bangalore-based historian Ramachandra Guha reports in his new book Gandhi Before India, the trajectory of the Indian freedom fighter's life over two decades in South Africa was far more complicated. It's also infinitely more intriguing, involving a bevy of friends and allies from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Tamil, and Chinese communities—as well as some rivals—whose lives were irrevocably changed by being in the presence of the clever lawyer from the town of Porbander in western India.
Guha fleshes out the details of a far more serious event in Gandhi's life in early 1897 after he returned to southern Africa from a trip to India, where he was enlisting support for Indians living in the British colony of Natal.
In its largest city, Durban, his countrymen were routinely being assaulted, banned from using white-only lavatories at railway stations, and required to have passes to go out at night. All of this was occurring as liberties for Indians were increasing in British-ruled India.
Gandhi's efforts to publicize South African injustices in India and embarrass the British into taking action made him a hated man among many whites in Natal, where Gandhi had been living since 1893. Guha documents how the whites were ready to take revenge after he sailed into Durban on the S.S. Naderi with 355 other passengers.
His arrival was covered extensively in the newspapers. And when Gandhi disembarked in the early evening, he and a Durban lawyer were trailed by a growing number of jeering whites. Eventually, the angry crowd caught up with Gandhi and beat him—one man even used a riding whip on him, according to Guha's account.
"He was rescued from the mob by a white lady, who used her parasol to keep away the attackers," Guha writes. "She was the wife of the long-serving Superintendent of Police, R.C. Alexander."
The author points out that in Pietermaritzburg in 1893, Gandhi only suffered discrimination at the hands of one person and there was no violence.
"Off the coast and when he landed in Durban, he was the target of the collective anger of (virtually) all the whites in Natal, expressed continuously for several weeks at a stretch," Guha states in his book. "The attack in Durban was far more important than the insult in Pietermaritzburg; more revealing of the racial politics of South Africa and of the challenges faced by Mohandas Gandhi himself."
This is just one of many illuminating and previously unreported incidents that come to life in this sprawling and exhaustive account of Gandhi's life before he moved back to India in 1915 in his mid 40s.
Gandhi was assaulted a second time
Eleven years after the assault in Durban, Gandhi was attacked again by stick-wielding members of South Africa's Pathan community. According to Ghandi's newspaper, Indian Opinion, one of his assailants was carrying an iron bar but wasn't able to strike Gandhi with this weapon.
"He was bleeding from the lips and the forehead, and two of his front teeth were loose," Guha writes. "A doctor was called in to treat the wounds."
Guha also reveals that at Gandhi's Phoenix Settlement near Durban, his unmarried son Manilal had an affair with the married daughter of his closest friend and patron, Pranjivan Mehta. It came as Gandhi was promoting celibacy in the compound and after his eldest son had moved to India in rebellion against his father.
Another astonishing revelation in the book concerns Gandhi's older brother Laxmidas, who helped him financially when he was studying law in London. Guha suggests that Laxmidas likely accompanied the grandson of the ruler of his hometown when he broke into the palace to steal some family jewels in 1891.
"By his actions, Laxmidas Gandhi ruined any chance Mohandas had of early preferment in Porbander," Guha writes. "After the fiasco in the palace, the chances of a judgeship or diwanship had receded, if not altogether disappeared."
According to Guha, that probably convinced Gandhi, a freshly London-trained lawyer, to move to Bombay, where he had little professional success. He returned to his home state of Gujarat for a while before finding work for a family of Muslim traders with offices in Natal, Transvaal, and Portuguese East Africa.
Author rejects claims that Gandhi was gay or bisexual
To find out what happened in Gandhi's life over the next 20 years, Guha relies heavily on Indian newspapers published in South Africa, including Indian Opinion, which was launched in 1903. The author also relies on South Africa's parliamentary papers, British colonial records, and the correspondence of Gandhi's friends and associates, most notably Mehta, the Indian nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and his closest friend in South Africa, Hermann Kallenbach.
A 2011 biography of Gandhi by former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld concluded that he had a homoerotic love for Kallenbach, a Jewish architect who lived with him for many years. Lelyveld based this on correspondence between the two friends.
In the footnotes at the back of Gandhi Before India, Guha dismisses this interpretation as "wrong-headed", declaring that Lelyveld's research was "incomplete".
"He had not consulted the Kallenbach Papers in Haifa, which would have set him right as to the depth of the architect's commitment to celibacy...and to his heterosexual instincts before and after," Guha writes.
One of Gandhi's letters to Kallenbach stated that he kept a bottle of Vaseline on his mantelpiece as a reminder of his friend. That prompted speculation by reviewers that it was for sexual intercourse between the two men, an allegation that Guha dismisses out of hand.
"In fact, Lelyveld had missed a reference in the letter to Gandhi suffering from corns," Guha writes. "That was what the Vaseline was for; to treat the blisters under his feet caused by long walks in London. The walks that Gandhi undertook in Johannesburg were often in the company of Kallenbach; hence the reference to corns and Vaseline."
The mere suggestion that Gandhi might have had sex with a man prompted the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, to ban the book in his state. This year, Modi was elected prime minister of India.
Gandhi was helped by the Tatas
Gandhi Before India is a worthy successor to Guha's 2007 masterpiece, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy. Like the earlier book, Gandhi Before India provides well-rounded portraits of major historical figures of the era, such as South Africa's General Jan Smuts.
The level of detail in the book might be a bit mind-numbing for casual readers, but for those seeking a thoroughly researched examination of Gandhi's time in South Africa, Guha's book is unparalleled, surpassing Lelyveld's work by a significant margin.
Guha also provides details about financial aid sent to Gandhi in South Africa from Bombay-based tycoon Ratan Tata and other wealthy Indians. There's also a fair amount on Gandhi's experiments in natural South Asian healing methods, as well as a revelation that Gandhi considered returning to London to study allopathic medicine.
In recent years, it has become fashionable on the far left to condemn Gandhi for working too closely with India's rising class of capitalists, for not taking a tough enough stance against the caste system, for refusing to embrace Marxism, and for not focusing sufficient attention on the poor. Lelyveld pointed out in his book that Gandhi was often more interested in achieving religious harmony over addressing casteism; Indian writer Arundhati Roy has delivered even harsher criticism on that front.
It's true that in some respects, Gandhi was a consummate politician, not a flame-throwing revolutionary. In India Before Gandhi, Guha describes how he meticulously planned acts of resistance that included crossing boundaries without permits, refusing to provide thumb impressions to authorities, and hawking without a licence.
South Africa became more racist after Boer War
What stands out in Guha's book is how racism in South Africa sharply intensified in the first decade of the 20th century, just as it did in Canada. Guha's accounts of the whites' reaction to the arrival of shiploads of Indian immigrants in this era are reminiscent of how South Asian immigrants were received in Canada after the passage of continuous-journey legislation in 1908.
Gandhi volunteered as an ambulance attendant for the British during the Boer War, fully expecting the colonial power to reward Indians' loyalty after defeating those of Dutch ancestry. However, the British ended up trying to satisfy the Boers by yielding to their desires to keep Asians out, which radicalized Gandhi just as South Africa was ramping up discriminatory laws.
Gandhi marshalled a broad-based movement to oppose the racist mindset of the time and achieved several successes in South Africa. A key factor, Guha concludes, is the intense loyalty he generated from a cross-section of Indians, ranging from labourers to merchants: "the Indians knew that their leader was not just prepared to court arrest for the cause, but to be killed for it as well."
No wonder Richard Attenborough decided to make an epic movie about him. Now, there's an epic book that adds immensely to our understanding.