11.1.15

Where I review Gandhi Before India and start rambling

tl;dr Books is really well written and worth the read. Discussing Gandhi though, remains a challenge. 4.5 stars - buy, it read it, enrich your lives.

Writing about M.K.Gandhi - the eponymous Mahatma - is not a trivial task. In a country which is constantly questioning its identity and busily forgetting it's recent past, visiting his life story is no easy task. Making this more difficult is the limited writing on the time Gandhi spent cementing his ideas and philosophy outside of India. This period is what Ramachandra Guha does a stellar job of narrating in Gandhi Before India. The book walks us through Gandhi's childhood, his turbulent youth and talks extensively about his days as the leader of the hard-fought civil rights movement in South Africa.

The book is well written - as you can expect from someone who wrote India After Gandhi and follows it up with another scholarly work. It paints a different picture than from what Indians have largely painted for themselves from the one movie, TV shows and politicians' speeches. It's also a narrative a lot of Indians may not care about since it is set in a foreign land dealing with problems of the diaspora from generations ago. Popular imagination has restricted Gandhi's 21 year stint outside India to an eviction from a train and a few fiery speeches without his trademark dhoti. Guha has filled in an enormous gap in my education and given me more insight into how Gandhi came onto his idea of Satyagraha and non-cooperation.

The book covers Gandhi's life and career, from a life of opulence on the west coast of India to eventual triumph  in the plantations, mines and prisons of South Africa - a journey that passed through England and briefly Mumbai. And quite a remarkable career it is - a lawyer, an editor, a mass agitator and a prophet all rolled into one. Guha convincingly places the roots of all these activities - and their growth - squarely in the events of Durban and Natal. Weaving a narrative using Gandhi's printed works, his correspondence and newspaper articles, Guha takes us through the broadening of a man's vision and the strengthening of his convictions. It is remarkable that the man, who with a pinch of salt would one day shake the very foundations of the British Empire, began his crusade as a loyal denizen of the Empire trying to accommodate the aspirations of his countrymen in the Empire's legal framework. Gandhi even organized an ambulance corps during the Boer War and encouraged volunteers from the Indian populace. Guha skillfully takes us through the events that turned this loyal son of the Empire into its greatest nemesis.

The England phase was definitely an eye-opener. That Gandhi was a London educated barrister was know; that he spent a significant time being socially and somewhat politically active there was interesting. Guha does a fine job of unearthing and highlighting this relatively obscure phase of Gandhi's life in the voices and letters of all the major players.

As a migrant myself, living in an age of great immigration turmoil, Gandhi's role as the crusading lawyer fighting for civil rights of migrants is especially thought provoking. As a man of his class, he began fighting for the middle classes and the wealthy, but his real gains had to wait on his leadership of the indentured Tamil plantation workers and miners. It's easy to forget that though England abolished slavery, she ensured slave-like conditions for millions of individuals across the globe. This book reminds us in good detail about the struggles of these people and their crusade to better themselves. What is also interesting is Gandhi's work with the migrant Chinese and the native African peoples. It is quite astonishing that Gandhi was able to stitch together an alliance of sorts that included sympathetic (and a few blindly loyal) Europeans in a day and time when class, caste and race prejudice was ingrained heavily - even in the great man himself.

The highlight of the book is of course the development of the ideas of non-cooperation, non violence and Satyagraha that Gandhi gradually evolved in South Africa. Guha details Gandhi's activities as a vegetarian in London which brought him the company of like-minded pacifists, his conversion to the path of Tolstoy and his spiritual development which matured in the Farms and prisons of South Africa.  Gandhi's initial forays, based on his readings and older movements, feel naive and crude at first, but the sheer moral high ground that he was able to base his philosophy on and the strict adherence to his principles literally converted more and more adherents. Gandhi's originality probably lies in his ability to tease out the moral strength of poor and unimaginative laborers and lead them to a life of equal rights while suffering equally (or more ) as them.

Another interesting theme of the book is the seeming indispensability of Gandhi's leadership. As in the Indian context, not only did Gandhi face challenges to his leadership, he also faced disillusionment of a lot of his initial followers because of the demands his methods put on them. Time and again, it is interesting to observe, how the mass was unable to accept anyone else's leadership. A huge part of this was of course that his writing - fairly lucid, although sometimes gibberish -  was always appealing to his readers' sense of moral, honor and dharma. Some part of it was also probably his strict adherence to his own ideals - we can appreciate this more in the Indian context, but it does provide some more insight into why, despite sustained opposition, he remained the preeminent leader of the Indian population.

The bibliography is excellent - I've no idea how I am going to be able to digest all of that. Guha drew not from the one well-cited single source - The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi - but was able to go far afield and draw from diverse biographies, paper clippings and personal interviews. My reading list has become well inflated with titles and I'm almost tempted to perform the sacrilege of making notations on my copy of the book so I can keep track of what I want to read. If for nothing else, just buy the book to appreciate the scholarship of the author.

The book does a grand job of portraying Gandhi as a prophet and therein lies my quandary. For my generation of peers who grew up with bomb blasts, high altitude warfare and the specter of urban terrorism,Gandhi is divisive. Gandhi has always has shouldered more blame - possibly because of his moralistic politics which appear bizarre now, quite definitely because of his stature. The haze of time has completely wiped out a coherent memory of the remarkable revolution that Gandhi was able to architect to free millions of people. Narratives of Gandhi obliging Pakistan's creators and "giving up" wealth that were rightfully Indian are pretty common and most definitely spurious. So do stories of his supposed physical cowardice - this in spite of his documented ambulance work in the Boer war and his courage in the face of prison. Satyagraha - literally, soul force - is controversial at best in today's day and age. Its practice reeks of emotional blackmail, it's adherents come off as naive (or in some cases, bullies).

So then, who is Gandhi? Is he just just an ideal of a saint we should consign to textbooks then? Has he no place in our daily discourse except as a target of blind faith on end or frustration and contempt on another? I think Guha makes a great case that not only is Gandhi relevant, the study of his work in creating a non-violent mass movement is also highly relevant. As the Arab Spring and AAP have proven, mass movements run by the middle class are highly seasonal and don't necessarily live through a winter. Looking back at Gandhi and his leadership might give us some insight on how to sustain confrontation against tyranny. I don't know if Satyagraha is a relevant weapon any more, but civil disobedience offered by loosely knit people's organizations will always remain a potent force. This book reminds us that these ideas - quite radical for their day and age - were not conceived in ivory towers, but wrought in the crucible of a struggle and shouldn't easily be dimissed.

Verdict - Read it, one of the better books to come out of India.