Gandhi before the Mahatma
Ramachandra Guha's newest book, the first of his two-part biography on Mahatama Gandhi, is a revealing and refreshing look at the life and times of the man before he became the biggest national leader of the country. Excerpts from an interview with Fiona Fernandez
How did you approach research for such a mammoth project? What were some of the biggest challenges along the way?
The main aspect about embarking on any kind of research is the fact that it is bound to be a labour intensive affair, with a lot of travel involved. With Gandhi Before India, there were several visits to England, South Africa and Ahmedabad, while Israel, at a later stage, was a bonus. Such projects require stamina and mental capacity; it’s natural when you have to devote a decade of your life to it. It requires a lot of hard work and planning if you have to sift through thousands of letters and written works. Often, sites and places connected to the project need to be revisited. I met archivists who are mostly delighted when historians turn up to access works, as I found out in places like Johannesburg. In fact, contrary to popular belief, most modern archives are well-kept. Such are the joys of research!
What were some of the initial revelations about Mahatma Gandhi that you discovered along the way?
On a positive note, I didn’t know, and I think most people also didn’t, about the depth of opposition that a young Gandhi of 25-26 years faced while in South Africa. It was not just an editorial barrage by way of reports in newspapers and journals, but also verbal and physical abuse that he faced in the country. This impressed upon me immensely. Conversely, on the negative side, there was the tragedy around his son Harilal. A part of the problem was that Gandhi had his children early. So, by time he was 35-36 years, while he was actively shifting his career paths, and facing a mid-life crisis, Harilal was also going through his own strife. He treated Harilal’s problems with a lack of sympathy. Later, he imposed absurd expectations on his second son Manilal and exalted him to be an exemplary Brahmachari (bachelor). So, while on the one hand he showed admirable courage, in facing abuse individually at such a young age, on the flipside, his lack of empathy towards his own family was equally revealing.
Gandhi’s time in South Africa offers great insight into his moulding as a leader and thinker. What were some of his qualities that led to his immense contribution to another continent well before he led India’s movement for Independence?
Gandhi was always a questioning person. He was open minded and willing to reach out to all, including his adversaries. This approach cultivated trust and loyalty across borders and barriers. It helped build a network, and was a universal trait that contributed towards his ability to dive into a campaign head-on, whether it was in South Africa or later, in India. In the 1880s-90s, it was a radical idea to break out from a set mould; even his friendships with foreign women were a departure from the expected norm.
Gandhi’s patience and dogged perseverance resonates throughout the book. Did these serve as the biggest thorns in the flesh for the British Empire?
You are absolutely right. He didn’t believe in being impatient. If persuasion didn’t work, he would move to the next form, which was nonviolent protest. He felt that young people of his time wanted to see radical change quickly. Gandhi maintained that by being patient, one might receive flack and disappointment, but the end result was fruitful. Gandhi was a dogged fellow who patiently built his network and was persistent throughout his life.