Book Review: Non-fiction/Gandhi before India by Ramachandra Guha, Penguin/Allen Lane, p.673, Rs899 (Hardback)
When India’s leading historian Ramachandra Guha writes on Mahatma Gandhi, the nation’s father, the account is naturally steeped in the wider discourse. After all, the writer of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, one of the most incisive commentaries on India’s tryst with nationhood, certainly has the authority and command to touch upon the main currents of India’s modern history. For over two decades, Guha has brought historiography within his purview, proving to be unprecedentedly receptive to greater social ideas.
On that basis, he has covered the history of cricket, environmentalism and the overall emergence of India as a young nation with old civilisational characteristics. And Guha’s new book, Gandhi Before India, which aims to inquire into and showcase Gandhi’s metamorphosis into the Mahatma over the years, is yet another significant addition to his body of work. Meticulously researched and richly detailed, the book is characteristically humane—a reflection of the fact that Guha has long been a most devoted scholar of Gandhism.
Attempting to explore lesser known facets of the life of Mahatma Gandhi, this first book of a two-part biography project focuses on the time between his birth in Porbandar in 1869 till his departure to India from South Africa in July 1914. “Before I come to the argument about the man, I thought that I should first understand the man. During my research, I realised that virtually everything written on Gandhi was in Gandhi’s own words, all that he said or wrote. I wanted to go beyond Gandhi’s point of view, everything that he wrote on including caste, culture, and religion,” Guha has stated.
The configuration in Gandhi Before India is between India’s greatest man and a scholar. The book’s content proves how majorly Guha has been influenced by the life of Mahatma Gandhi and his worldviews—and there are very few who could’ve penned it in the same spirit. For there have been many an attempt to evaluate the great man, but few have been truly successful—some works oversimplify the narrative while others falter when pushing forth unreasonable doubts.
What is visibly amiss in such cases is an interest in Gandhi’s diversified persona, which is difficult to reject, even in the course of a subversive analysis. Based on archival research in four continents, Gandhi Before India gives an account of Gandhi as an individual and the world he lived in, a world that was apparently constructed of sharp contrasts, such as those witnessed during his movements between the coastal culture of Gujarat to High Victorian London and then to empire-ruled South Africa.
The book is tastefully directed to explore Gandhi’s experiments with dissident cults such as the Tolstoyans and vegetarians, his friendships with radical Jews, devout Christians and Muslims, his enmities and rivalries and his failures as a husband and father.
All these had, after all, contributed to the process of his becoming the man he would forever be known as around the world, a mass mobiliser for the emancipation of humanity. Gandhi’s biggest triumph thereafter was probably his determined reliance on non-violence to fight the brutality of the racist regime in South Africa and the colonial occupation of India.
In the course of time, after plenty of blood, sweat and tears had been shed, the erstwhile colonies became free democracies—and Gandhi’s role also deserves to be seen in the context of his championing of a better western idea.
Although a democrat to the core in action, principally, Gandhi had backed the conception of ‘nation and nationhood’ without sliding from the backup of conventional wisdom. He was part of a vital stream of tradition and modernism. So, as Guha understood it, revisiting Gandhi should take consideration of his personal beliefs as well as his dealings with the world. For he was foremost a man of immense integrity, one who never denied his weaknesses, and who rose to inspire the ethical consciences of millions.
Guha is able to do justice to his chosen theme, depicting Gandhi as simultaneously a fallible man and an unparalleled reformer who changed the entire course of history. The basic contention of the book reasonably notes that Gandhi was not born great but that it was his honest overtures with unusual circumstances in alien lands that had befitted him for the purposes of activism.
He soon emerged a great visionary, a beacon of hope for all the pockets of colonial oppression around the world, one who was intent on sticking to the path of non-violent revolution in order to curtail and diminish the might of imperial power. His approach was not hard-hitting as such, but his conviction and ability to communicate was forthright with effect. A great writer himself, Gandhi linked activism to the pen and peaceful demonstration—a phenomenon shift in the medium of protest in the post-industrialised world.
Guha’s book allows readers to be informed on all counts—including on the many inconvenient truths and misnomers surrounding Gandhi’s legend. Unlike most other attempts, this book does not intend to mystify; it aims instead to make Gandhi accessible to the greater masses, an admirable effort towards what is called the ‘democratisation of historiography’. Gandhi Before India is thus a beautifully written book that will no doubt create anticipation among readers for its sequel. And Guha, reportedly, is already at work on the same.
Even after 66 years of independence, the fog that surrounds Indian history is still quite dense—bizarre given how we’ve had generations of historians who’ve been scrabbling to find the pulse of significant events from the past. Unlike many of them, however, as a free thinker, Guha is probably in a better position to write the new history of modern India, or its ‘social history’. Gandhi Before India pays testament to his skills therein, and his capacity to shape an accessible and engaging narrative with remarkably gathered facts and balanced perspective—quite a rare achievement when it comes to something as complex as India’s history.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on Novemver30,2013)