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Gandhi Was a Crank Before He Was a Saint

His morally nuanced early years in South Africa

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Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha (Knopf)

One of the best places to appreciate the struggle and the triumph of post-apartheid South Africa is at the top of Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill. In the center sits the Constitutional Court, established in 1994 to protect the rights of all citizens, and housed in an innovative building that unites motifs from every part of the “rainbow nation.” Surrounding the court, the remains of Johannesburg’s century-old prison complex tell another story. It was here that thousands of political prisoners were jailed for the “crime” of resisting racist laws.

A series of life-size portraits hanging in a former prison block (now a museum) chronicles the trajectory of one of its most famous inmates. The first photograph, taken around 1906, shows a young brown-skinned man standing with his arms crossed and his head cocked. Hair slicked down, black moustache framing his lips, he wears a morning coat, a starched collar, and a jaunty striped tie, every inch the fashionable professional. In a second picture, circa 1908, the man and his circumstances have been transformed. Here he hunches at a desk in a rough loose shirt, pants, and sandals: a prisoner in a Johannesburg cell. By the third image, he has mutated again. Moustache shaved, head tonsured, dressed in a white Indian tunic and dhoti, he stands barefoot with a staff in his hand, like a shepherd of shorn lambs. It is only in the final picture, which shows the man in old age—bald, bespectacled, wearing a homespun loincloth—that most visitors will recognize him as Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most familiar faces of the twentieth century.

How did a provincial young lawyer from western India become a globally recognized icon? The answers lie largely—if not widely known—in South Africa. During twenty years living in and around Durban and Johannesburg, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, once a mediocre student, a shy speaker, and an unsuccessful barrister, turned into a prolific author, a committed social activist, and a galvanizing leader with an international reputation. Nelson Mandela put it best, on a visit to India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.”

Gandhi Before India, the first volume of Ramachandra Guha’s projected two-part biography, traces Gandhi’s activities up to 1914, when he returned permanently to India. The central achievement of this book is to establish the South African period—the first half of Gandhi’s life—as foundational to Gandhi’s later career, and worth sustained attention in its own right. What’s more, where authors have generally approached Gandhi’s time in South Africa through his own copious published works—all one hundred volumes of them—including recollections he produced long after the fact, Guha has turned up troves of hitherto unused private papers belonging to Gandhi’s many close friends and colleagues, to develop a far more rounded portrait. Deeply contextualized, dextrously researched, and judiciously written, this deserves to become the landmark biography of the early Gandhi. And it invites a critical question: how well does the familiar later image of the Mahatma hold up?

If some men are born to greatness and others have it thrust upon them, Gandhi seemed to stumble toward it on a path marked by historical conjuncture and circumstance. Nothing in his origins anticipated his subsequent cosmopolitanism. He was born in a part of India little touched by British imperialism: the tiny princely state of Porbandar in Gujarat’s Kathiawar peninsula, where his father and grandfather had held the position of Diwan (chief minister) to the Rajah. He studied with no particular distinction at local schools, and at thirteen he was married to Kasturba, the attractive and illiterate daughter of a wealthy merchant. As Banias, members of a middling caste known for its strict vegetarianism, the Gandhi family was deeply pious, provincial, and neither formally educated nor rich—far from the kind of family who might send a son abroad to study.

Had Gandhi’s father not died in 1885, Gandhi would probably have gotten a job in the Porbandar administration and never left. Instead, in 1888 he seized on a suggestion from a family friend to qualify as a barrister in London, which would take half as long as earning a B.A. in India. Not only did this scheme call for a small fortune, raised by pawning the family jewelry. It also required persuading his devout mother to let him go, in spite of the Hindu taboo against crossing the ocean (or kala pani, “black water”), which meant losing caste. Gandhi won her consent by swearing an oath that he would not “touch a strange woman, or drink wine, or eat meat.” Braving the condemnation of community elders, he set off, leaving his wife and a newborn son behind.

Had Gandhi not traveled to London, he would not have formed horizon-widening friendships with Europeans. Dining in London’s handful of vegetarian restaurants, Gandhi learned about the London Vegetarian Society, in which he soon became an active member. The society gave him “a cause, and his first English friends.” Remarkably, given contemporary racial prejudices, he shared rooms with an Englishman in Bayswater and hosted dinners of “lentil soup, boiled rice and large raisins.” His friends introduced him to the writings of the Theosophists and to the New Testament, in which he found profound resonances with the Bhagavad Gita. He made his print debut in the society’s journal, The Vegetarian, with a series of essays on Indian food.

Gandhi returned to India in 1891 immediately after being called to the bar. He landed in Bombay to learn that his mother had died and that his elder brother had been disgraced in a Porbandar palace scandal, effectively ruining Gandhi’s career prospects there. Meanwhile, in Bombay, the Bania community ostracized him as an outcaste, and he failed to get clients. When he was approached by a Gujarati Muslim merchant to act in a family business dispute abroad—in the British colony of Natal, South Africa—Gandhi was delighted to accept the case.

Had Gandhi been a more successful lawyer, he would never have had reason to visit South Africa—and even this opportunity, Guha notes, was the consequence of particular historical circumstance. A hundred years earlier, when the Cape was still a Dutch colony, “there would have been no Indian traders” in South Africa. A century later, when British imperialism had been superseded by South African independence, “these traders would have been assimilated English-speakers,” with no need for Gujarati-speaking lawyers to handle their affairs.

As it was, South Africa in the 1890s was a fast-changing society of competing peoples—more boiling pot than melting pot. Gandhi ended up spending about ten years each in two distinct regions. British-administered Natal, on the coast, had approximately 45,000 white settlers in 1891 and more than 35,000 Indians, many of whom had come as indentured agricultural laborers. Inland, the Dutch-descended Boers governed the republic of the Transvaal, where a recent gold strike on the Rand had touched off a rush of immigration. Indigenous Africans substantially outnumbered whites in both colonies; Zulu armed resistance to imperial rule in Natal remained a live threat. Though Britons and Boers despised one another—their power struggle erupted in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899—both white governments strictly limited non-white rights through segregationist policies akin to those of the Jim Crow South.

Had Gandhi not gone to South Africa, he might never have experienced the endemic racial prejudice that sparked his sense of social injustice. A week after arriving in Durban, he traveled to Pretoria on a first-class train ticket. The conductor ordered him to vacate this de facto “whites-only” carriage and shift to third-class. When he refused, he was thrown off the train. (Some years later the African nationalist Pixley Seme responded more abruptly to a similar demand: he pulled out a gun.) Gandhi later described this as an epiphany—the moment when he came face to face with the “disease of colour prejudice” and his responsibility to fight it. Within months he was drafting petitions on behalf of the Natal Indian community against the legislature’s attempts to disenfranchise Indians.

In truth, however, his political awakening followed a more fitful course. In 1897, he was assaulted by an anti-immigrant mob on the Durban waterfront—violent proof that South Africa’s Anglo settlers could be every bit as racist as the Boers. Yet he retained an enduring faith in British justice, going so far as to organize an Indian volunteer ambulance corps to serve British troops in the Boer War. “If I demanded rights as a British citizen,” he later wrote, “it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire. I held then that India could achieve her complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire.” And for all that Gandhi characterized his continuing work in South Africa as part of a God-given plan, the truth was that Gandhi may have needed South Africa in those years as much as South African Indians needed him. In 1901, he moved his family back to India, expecting to settle permanently—but again he failed to make a go of it as a lawyer, and returned to South Africa in 1902.

Otherwise he might never have cemented his reputation and his signature tactics. He returned to a postwar South Africa in which Anglos and Afrikaners had banded together to create a white-supremacist society. Gandhi based himself in Johannesburg, started a newspaper called Indian Opinion, and set about protesting “the constant changes of passes and permits” by which the government regulated non-white movement. An Asiatic Ordinance in 1906, which required Indians to register and to carry identity papers, marked a critical shift in his methods. When none of his tried tactics—petitions, meetings, even a trip to London to lobby colonial officials—yielded true results, Gandhi encouraged the Indian community to resist. In the first days of 1908, he became one of dozens of Indians jailed in Johannesburg for refusing to register, a prisoner of conscience.

On the day of Gandhi’s conviction, Indian Opinion called on readers to coin “Indian equivalents for the terms ‘passive resistance’ and ‘civil disobedience,’ ” the watchwords of their new movement. The winner, Gandhi decided, should be satyagraha, a new coinage meaning “force of truth in a good cause.” Satyagraha became Gandhi’s slogan, and its force would go on to fuel good causes from Indian independence to the U.S. civil rights movement.

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Mohandas Gandhi, South Africa, ca. 1913

Gandhi’s political maturation was mirrored by an ongoing personal quest for purity, vividly played out on his own body. His spiritual mentors ranged from the Jain sage Raychand, who encouraged self-denial as a means of achieving compassion, to Tolstoy, whose paean to conscience and simple living, The Kingdom of God is Within You, became for Gandhi a kind of manual. In 1904, fresh from reading John Ruskin, Gandhi bought a farm at Phoenix, near Durban, where he set up a community dedicated to “a more simple and natural life.” Europeans and Indians lived and worked side by side, tending small plots and running a press. A few years later, Gandhi set up Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg with his devoted friend Hermann Kallenbach, an architect, where they sought an even more stripped-down existence, eschewing industrial technology when possible.

Gandhi’s personal and political objectives converged in 1909 in his best-known political writing, an extraordinary book called Hind Swaraj, which he drafted in nine days (in Gujarati) on a journey back from England. In it, Gandhi makes a case for Indian self-government rooted not in modern Western ideas of national independence but in indigenous traditions—or at least in Gandhi’s romanticized vision of them. As much a reactionary screed against the modern world as a powerful argument for non-violence and self-improvement, Gandhi’s book seems at times as plausible as teaching dinosaurs to do yoga. At its best, however, the book delivers a moving endorsement of the capacity of conscientious individuals to create a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable society.

When he wrote his manifesto Gandhi had already famously taken a vow of brahmacharya—celibacy—following an example set by Raychand. Much has been made of Gandhi’s attitudes toward sex and of his wife’s response, a preoccupation that Guha writes off as peculiarly Western and of our time. His Gandhi is not so much a sexual eccentric as a diet-obsessed crank. Food served as the battleground on which Gandhi waged war with his urges and aspirations—so fiercely, indeed, that were it not for its political-spiritual content (and Gandhi’s gender), today’s Western observer might wonder about anorexia. From his Bania upbringing onward, Gandhi restricted his intake of kinds and quantities of food as part of a continual process of self-improvement, while fasting became his all-purpose penance for personal and political setbacks. He became (in his own words) a “quack physician” to his friends, prescribing diets and hydropathic cures. (At one stage he even considered returning to Britain for a degree in medicine.) He became annoying. Some acquaintances broke off the connection when he persuaded their young son that it was better to eat apples than meat. He demanded that his housemate, Millie Polak, stop serving “raw onions and milk ... on the grounds that they excited the passions”—prompting her to retort that “one would think they were gourmands; no house in Johannesburg was so concerned with what to eat and especially with what not to eat.”

Gandhi’s remarkable capacity for self-denial anchored his moral authority and charismatic allure to legions of followers. But for those who had no choice—his wife and his children—he could be a tyrant. He had screaming quarrels with Kasturba, forcing her to undertake menial chores and sparring with her over the children. To his sons, Guha notes, “Gandhi was the traditional overbearing Hindu patriarch.” When his eldest son failed to follow his example into celibacy and insisted on getting married, Gandhi responded with cutting simplicity: “For the present at any rate, I have ceased to think of him as a son.” When his second son had an affair with a married woman at Phoenix, Gandhi forced him, too, into celibacy “until such time as he, Mr Gandhi, should release him from his vow.”

Guha stresses the novelty and the depth of Gandhi’s boundary-crossing friendships with Europeans, and one of the book’s great contributions is to bring these figures to life. Yet for all of Gandhi’s ecumenism, he kept a troubling—to put it mildly—distance from the African majority population. Objecting to a pass law in Durban in 1896, Gandhi argued that an Indian worker was not “a barbarian” like an African, and thus deserved better treatment. He made no effort to establish formal ties with the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), which had been established in 1912, even though one of its founders, Pixley Seme, came up with the idea for it soon after a visit to Tolstoy Farm—and even though its first president, John Dube, ran a pioneering African school just a stone’s throw from Phoenix. (Gandhi did, by contrast, join forces with the Chinese activist Leung Quinn.) In fact, during a Zulu uprising in 1906, Gandhi remobilized his Indian ambulance corps to serve British troops, saying that “it is not for me to say whether the revolt of the Kaffirs is justified or not. We are in Natal by virtue of British power. Our very existence depends upon it. It is therefore our duty to render whatever help we can.” It was only by 1908, perhaps in part as a result of his very brief encounters with Dube, that Gandhi finally stopped referring to Africans as “kaffirs”—the dismissive white term for blacks, as offensive a term as “coolie” was to Asians.

Guha is at pains to show that Gandhi’s prejudices softened over time, but he cannot chase the elephant from the room. Why did Gandhi so singularly fail to address the political and social condition of Africans? Guha provides evidence to support three possible answers. The first is that Gandhi genuinely believed, for much of his time in South Africa, in the British Empire’s ability to correct itself, and he might have expected the treatment of Africans to improve accordingly. The second, reflective of his attitudes after about 1906, is that while he “recognized that all races other than Europeans suffered from structural discrimination in South Africa,” he believed that “each community had to work out its own path” to equality. Gandhi before India was not Gandhi before Indians. The third is that Gandhi was straightforwardly racist, in the sense that he stubbornly (if perversely) echoed the contemporary discourse that classified Africans as “uncivilized” and inferior to Asians and whites. For all that his attitudes evolved, Gandhi’s studied ignorance of Africans and African affairs played right into the insidious “divide-and-rule” logic of empire.

“The Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims,” writes Guha, and Gandhi “should really be more seriously recognized as being among apartheid’s first opponents.” But it was precisely these divide-and-rule techniques that made apartheid so hard to defeat. It took a later generation of African, Indian, and colored leaders to recognize—as Gandhi had not—the importance of joining forces in a common struggle against it.

In January 1914, Gandhi returned permanently to India on the heels of his most sweeping and successful satyagraha, a campaign against a £3 tax on former indentured laborers. He had long believed that his vocation was to help India achieve home rule. Though he had failed as a lawyer to find a foothold in India, by now Gandhi the activist “had made a definite impact on the popular consciousness of the motherland,” and anti-colonial nationalists were eager to welcome him back.

In a final chapter on “How the Mahatma Was Made,” Guha steps back from his subject to ask, “In what ways did the first forty-five years of Gandhi’s life shape him as a social reformer, religious thinker and political actor? What is the significance of his South African years ... for those who know Gandhi as the leader of the Indian freedom struggle?” This chapter works well as a distillation of the book, reiterating Gandhi’s striking “ability to transcend his class, religious and ethnic background” and his power to inspire “devotion ... by the exemplary nature of his life and conduct.” Guha does note that “Gandhi’s capaciousness ... was constrained in one fundamental sense.... [H]e forged no real friendships with Africans”—and also that critics found his austere lifestyle “confirmation of how irrelevant his entire world-view was to the modern era.” But as the volume’s only piece of extended analysis, the conclusion lacks a certain critical punch.

Consider an assessment framed around some counterfactual questions. What would Gandhi’s political or social legacy have been had he died in 1914? In relation to the evolving nationalist movement in India, he could have ranked among the first generation of moderates who successfully articulated an anti-colonial cause but did not take radical enough steps to achieve it. In relation to the struggle against racism in South Africa, he would have set a more active example, showing the power of passive resistance to alter policy. But without the model of his mass actions in India, Gandhi’s pre-1914 satyagrahas would not have made so substantial an impact on ANC leaders—who in any case abandoned nonviolence after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

What would have happened to Gandhi had he remained in South Africa for the rest of his life? Gandhi would have considered such a future a failure, since in his view of his political mission the greater struggle lay in winning rights for Indians in India. The greater struggle for South Africa—the full political and social inclusion of Africans—lay outside Gandhi’s sphere of interest and influence. For him to engage in it would have required truly transformative changes in his thought, as well as African and colored counterparts interested in forging an alliance.

What would Gandhi’s political career in India have looked like had he never gone to South Africa? He might never have become so politicized in the first place. One can imagine him, a provincial lawyer, channeling his energy into his most enduring passion, diet. Even had Gandhi become politically active in turn-of-the-century India, he would have had a much harder time gaining national recognition. He would have had to shape his political identity in the shadow of towering mentors such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale. His move to passive resistance would have appeared less novel in light of the Swadeshi movement in 1905, which boycotted British goods in the name of “self-sufficiency,” and he would have had to defend these tactics in the face of successful militancy. In South Africa, by contrast, Gandhi had no well-known forerunners, and few apparent rivals. He naturally stood out as one of relatively few highly educated professionals in the Indian community, and its small size and geographical concentration facilitated his rise. Like generations of imperial entrepreneurs before him, he successfully leveraged his position on a colonial margin to gain recognition back home. Finally, as Guha shows, without the years abroad he might not have developed the same commitment to pluralism, an inclination fostered by his close friendships with Christians and Jews.

These questions underscore the role not just of South Africa but of happenstance in the making of the Mahatma. They also point up his personal and political limitations. That Guha maintains a measured distance from the more troubling aspects of Gandhi’s persona may say less about Gandhi than it does about India today. India is now the fastest-growing market for English-language books, but it has also witnessed disgraceful assaults on books judged to be “offensive” to powerful interest groups and aggrieved extremists. (Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, Great Soul, was banned in Gujarat due to his portrayal of the “intimate, also ambiguous, relationship” between Gandhi and Kallenbach. The Hindus, by the eminent American scholar Wendy Doniger, was recently pulped by Penguin India in the face of a bigoted charge that the book sought “to ridicule, humiliate, and defame the Hindus.”) Guha’s Gandhi should not offend many, but he may surprise most. So much the better if he can inspire readers anew with his lifelong commitment to creating a purer self and a fairer society—goals he would surely agree that nobody has yet fully accomplished.