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Gandhi Before India [Hardcover]

Ramachandra Guha
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 April 2014
Here is the first volume of a magisterial biography of Mohandas Gandhi that gives us the most illuminating portrait we have had of the life, the work and the historical context of one of the most abidingly influential—and controversial—men in modern history.
Ramachandra Guha—hailed by Time as “Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler”—takes us from Gandhi’s birth in 1869 through his upbringing in Gujarat, his two years as a student in London and his two decades as a lawyer and community organizer in South Africa. Guha has uncovered myriad previously untapped documents, including private papers of Gandhi’s contemporaries and co-workers; contemporary newspapers and court documents; the writings of Gandhi’s children; and secret files kept by British Empire functionaries. Using this wealth of material in an exuberant, brilliantly nuanced and detailed narrative, Guha describes the social, political and personal worlds inside of which Gandhi began the journey that would earn him the honorific Mahatma: “Great Soul.” And, more clearly than ever before, he elucidates how Gandhi’s work in South Africa—far from being a mere prelude to his accomplishments in India—was profoundly influential in his evolution as a family man, political thinker, social reformer and, ultimately, beloved leader.
In 1893, when Gandhi set sail for South Africa, he was a twenty-three-year-old lawyer who had failed to establish himself in India. In this remarkable biography, the author makes clear the fundamental ways in which Gandhi’s ideas were shaped before his return to India in 1915. It was during his years in England and South Africa, Guha shows us, that Gandhi came to understand the nature of imperialism and racism; and in South Africa that he forged the philosophy and techniques that would undermine and eventually overthrow the British Raj.
Gandhi Before India gives us equally vivid portraits of the man and the world he lived in: a world of sharp contrasts among the coastal culture of his birthplace, High Victorian London, and colonial South Africa. It explores in abundant detail Gandhi’s experiments with dissident cults such as the Tolstoyans; his friendships with radical Jews, heterodox Christians and devout Muslims; his enmities and rivalries; and his often overlooked failures as a husband and father. It tells the dramatic, profoundly moving story of how Gandhi inspired the devotion of thousands of followers in South Africa as he mobilized a cross-class and inter-religious coalition, pledged to non-violence in their battle against a brutally racist regime.
Researched with unequaled depth and breadth, and written with extraordinary grace and clarity, Gandhi Before India is, on every level, fully commensurate with its subject. It will radically alter our understanding and appreciation of twentieth-century India’s greatest man. 

Product details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group (15 April 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385532296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385532297
  • Product Dimensions: 26.7 x 17.5 x 5.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

Product Description


This book will be of enormous interest to readers interested in how law, politics, journalism, social activism and associated professions interact in the processes of social and political change ... One senses, in the author's approach, something of Gandhi's own intensity and rigour ... this book never ceases to inform and intrigue, from the charming preface in which the author's love of his subject shines through, to its prophetic conclusion ... In Ramachandra Guha, a great man has found a great biographer, a wise, persistent and elegant historian who has done justice to perhaps his nation's greatest story (Sydney Morning Herald)

Excellent and exhaustive ... Guha has done heroic work in reconstructing this period of Gandhi's life ... Gandhi emerges here as a fascinatingly complicated and contradictory figure ... if the sequel proves as rich and absorbing as this first book, it will doubtless serve as the fundamental portrait of Gandhi for many years to come (Sunday Business Post)

Guha's Gandhi Before India is a whale of a book. It is unique. No one has written so comprehensively on Gandhi's early years ... a great historian ... Guha's book is a classic (Mail Today, New Delhi)

What can a new biographer add? Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha, India's leading historian, offers plenty ... Rather than lingering on Gandhi's own well-studied words, Mr Guha has unearthed a wealth of previously overlooked school reports, diaries, letters and articles by collaborators and opponents of Gandhi. The result is a striking depiction of his transformation into mid-adulthood ... As Mr Guha ably shows, for all that Gandhi influenced events in South Africa, it was he who experienced the greater change (Economist)

One of the surprises in Gandhi Before India is just how much fresh material it contains. Guha has a gift for tracking down obscure letters and newspaper reports and patching them together to make history come alive ... The book turns up some gems ... Gandhi Before India demonstrates how complicated cross-cultural relations were in the long 19th century ... it is a work of vivid social history as well as biography (Patrick French Guardian)

Guha is India's best-known historian, who marshals his wide scholarship in contemporary and modern history with a raconteur's lucid felicity (DNA Mumbai)

A spirited case for Gandhi's continued relevance, for the challenges his ideas still present to us (Tehelka, New Delhi)

Guha is one of India's most intelligent and readable historians; and in addition to his considerable talents, he has had the good fortune to discover a treasure trove of Gandhi's own voluminous press cuttings and also many shelf-loads of letters to him from friends and colleagues (Standpoint)

Many will come to this biography wanting to know more about Gandhi himself - his character, the details of his famously ascetic lifestyle and his relations with his family, which were not ideal ... Guha relates all this wonderfully ... [the] book is clearly a labour of love, though not of uncritical infatuation. What distinguishes it is the breadth of the context - Indian, British and South African ... Guha marshals his material sensitively and empathetically in order to give shape, colour and depth to the life of this saint-like figure (but how much more fascinating than any conventional saint) (Literary Review) --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Ramachandra Guha is one of India's most influential historians and public intellectuals. His books include A Corner of a Foreign Field and India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy. The Independent has called him 'one of the world's great minds'; Time Magazine has said he is 'Indian democracy's pre-eminent chronicler'. He has held visiting professorships at Stanford, Yale, and the London School of Economics. He lives in Bangalore. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Dr Barry Clayton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
This is the first volume (688 pages) of a two volume work by Ramachandra Guha. It focuses on Gandhi's youthful years when he developed his ideas and methods of passive resistance against white-ruled South Africa. We are told he was a poor scholar at school in Gujarat, and then of his more exciting and fruitful educational experience in London. At this time politics was of little importance to Gandhi, his main interest was vegetarianism.

Gandhi is almost always pictured in a loin cloth, yet he used to dress in a very elegant fashion complete with top hat when he was training as a barrister. Very few leaders have had such a mountain of biographical writing heaped on them as Gandhi. There is an 8-volume work by Tendulkar, others have laboured over his 98 volumes of letters, articles and speeches contained in his 'Collected Works'.

Gandhi had many unattractive qualities. He was crafty, manipulative, conducted some very odd activities with young virgins, and he treated his wife appallingly. The well-known author has focused his primary research on Gandhi's mountain of press cuttings and letters, most of which were found forgotten in the Gandhi Museum in Delhi. His main purpose is to remind the reader of the importance of Gandhi's earlier years.

Gandhi returned to India after failing as a barrister due mainly to his very poor oral skills. Deciding to go to South Africa he was in due course a successful lawyer. It was here midst a dreadful racist regime that he began to hone his techniques of satyagraha (truth force). It is worth remembering however that initially the young Gandhi voiced views of blacks, who he called 'raw Kaffirs', that smacked of racism.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Writing 16 Oct 2013
Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Who was Gandhi? Was he just a movement? Or was there more to him? Was there ever more to him as a person? What was he like before he started the revolution of such a kind that inspired millions to follow him? How did he get there? Who was Gandhi the man? Such questions always cropped in my mind in school.

There was always this chapter on the Mahatma in school and yet we never tried to know more about the man. He was always an enigma. Maybe because not enough is written or spoken of him before his time in India. Of his formative years spent in England and South Africa. Ramachandra Guha discovers the man through those years in his aptly titled book, "Gandhi Before India".

"Gandhi Before India" is all about the man and what led him to believe in what he did. It is about his years in England and South Africa before coming back to India in 1915 and starting a revolution against the Empire like none other.

The book is an attempt to unearth Gandhi like never before. His ideologies, his thoughts, the convergence of incidents in his life, that made him the man he was and how he grew to become the Mahatma or rather what he was before he became the "Great Soul".

"Gandhi Before India" brings to light the transformation of the boy to the man. The writing makes no bones about it and that is what will have the reader from page one. Gandhi somehow is always relevant. In almost every single time and era, and this book strives to unearth the man behind all the layers.

Ramachandra Guha's research is intense and that is evident.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, convincing and startling 24 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
I was so impressed by this biography. It's a big book on big subject and yet it was such an enjoyable read. Gandhi Before India covers the Mahatma's formative years which were mainly spent in South Africa. It's the product of years of intensive and scrupulously detailed research and is as stylistically unsensational as such a profoundly sensational story can be. Yet, as a reader, I found myself completely gripped by the narrative and sitting up late at might to turn another page. As a biographer Guha walks with Gandhi, mapping the development of his thought and activism, not in any ideological vacuum but in the context of the new people he met, the ideas he absorbed and the social injustices and political betrayals that made him radical and developed his extraordinary powers of leadership. It is compelling, convincing and startling.

Among the aspects I found startling were Gandhi's unflagging politeness and respect for the British leaders and the South African General Smuts with whom he had to deal. I admired his unselfconscious gift for friendship and was amazed by the ecumenical variety of the people who were closest to him - he was supported by Jews and Christians,Tamils, Muslims, Parsis and Jains. I had no idea at all of the role played by the Chinese community in the struggle against white oppression in South Africa. Guha makes the point that Gandhi did not engage with the African population to any significant extent but the techniques of resistance that he pioneered during this period remain available and potent to all who are oppressed.

Before I read this biography I had tended to think of passive resistance as hugely courageous but, well, passive. The techniques of satyagraha as developed by Gandhi and his multi-ethnic colleagues were actively provocative.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  53 reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars very interesting 21 April 2014
By Joan C. Scott - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
By his own account, for Gandhi Before India Ramachandra Guha was able to consult quite a bit of Gandhi's correspondence that had not been included in the compendium of "all" his correspondence. I have no reason to doubt that. His research appears impeccable.

Guha sees Gandhi as a person with flaws as well as virtues. He presents to us a real person in the process of growth. This is also a big plus for this book.

Given that it presents a lot with which I am not familiar both about one of India's subcultures and about Gandhi, himself, the book is surprisingly quite readable.

Overall, I can only say that this book is an impressive achievement which makes me interested to read more by this author!
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could be made interesting 31 Oct 2013
By M. Satyanarayana - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
The subject of biography of Mahatma in Africa is very interesting and at many events is exciting - when you think of the Tranval world; cases Gandhi was arguing; the background to and execution of, satyagraha. The life has all material - better than Boswell's Johnson.

Unfortunately, Mr Guha presents a dry history book chronologically listing events one after the other. After reading the book, one is left with a feeling of jumble of events and dates - there is no feeling of participation mentally of the events unfolding in Natal & Transval. Mr. Guha collected lot of material, put in lot of effort but could not present it in an interesting and involving fashion.

A book of this nature should transport the reader to the relevant time; make him feel mentally that he is part of events unfolding in Natal & Transval. That is where Mr. Guha fails. I think, he should have joined hands with a good story teller - that could have made the book very interesting, involving and most read. Some thing like "Man Before Mahatma". Mr Guha should seriously consider rewriting this book. This can be a wonderful book - the subject has all material that can put a reader on edge with interest. If written right, it will be a book every Indian and every Western will read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspectives on the evolution of a great human's thought process 17 April 2014
By Sreeram Ramakrishnan - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
With tomes of dissertations and books written on Gandhi, it is always difficult to come up with a new lens to rediscover the personality that shaped much of the strategies in modern world's political movements. Most authors adopt an approach to explain how Gandhi influenced India (the world, in general). and focus less on how the world shaped Gandhi. Guha does a masterful job in a blended approach of employing Gandhi both as a protagonist and a mere witness to prevalent social-economic-political-religious circumstances. In that nuanced approach, Guha is able to discover the unique roles non-Indians have played in the early shaping of Gandhi's philosophies, moral compass, and the urge to fight injustice within the system.

Some narratives (especially the ones I read growing up in India) tend to portray Westerners as mostly of the same ilk as the infamous General Dyre. But the narrative around Gandhi in England for studies portray an entirely different picture; almost to the extent that one could argue England really didn't know what the English were doing once they were out of England - the general tolerance and often camaraderie (as in vegetarian society, for example) that Gandhi experienced in his college days is in stark contrast to how the English raj was perceived. That contrast is educational, a reader also is able to witness the gradual degeneration of the "benevolence" of the English rulers in all colonies. The social tensions within these colonies, the debate on immigrants (and Indians' role in shaping that discourse via non-violent ways), and the general apathy that was shown towards immigrants and other races in South Africa is a story that is often unsaid in the context of Gandhi. Those sections alone are worth this book.

Perhaps the best chapter that crystallizes the transformation that Gandhi went through, as a result of his numerous moves between India and South Africa (not flatteringly, more moves were associated with professional growth than a compelling sense of principles, often at a significant cost to his family) is "from conciliation to confrontation". Religious, racial undertones to a legal battle in Natal really captures the thought process of Gandhi - as a political strategist.

In some sense, the biggest contribution of Guha, in this account, is the portrayal of Gandhi as a political strategist (primarily) as opposed to a moral leader which is typically the narrative most biographers have chosen to do. In addition, the detailed discussions on the South African colonies provide an extremely detailed and insightful analysis on how these events gradually shaped Gandhi's views (as opposed to the dramatic narrative involving throwing Gandhi from a train...).

While often times dry (due to the attention to detail) and difficult to digest the jumps in narrative settings (Gandhi was obviously a great packer-mover, it seems), Guha does an excellent job in educating the social-political-racial circumstances that shaped one of the most influential political strategists. An excellent read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Story of the evolution of a Bania into a Mahatma 15 April 2014
By Raghu Nathan - Published on
I was hesitant to buy this book because I was skeptical as to what more that is new can be written about Mahatma Gandhi. After all, the Govt of India had published 100 volumes of his collected works after nearly 40 years of sustained effort in assembling them. Still, the title kindled my interest because I realized that I know little about Gandhi's first 45 years of life, which were spent substantially outside India. In fact, for most of us in India, the window into Gandhi's life before he came back to India, was provided only by Richard Attenborough's film 'Gandhi'. As I finished reading this book, I am amazed that Dr.Guha is able to show us so much about Gandhi's life that I have been completely unaware of. The book shows how Gandhi was born a Gujarathi bania, grew up in Gujarat with all the prejudices and quirks of his caste and gradually transformed himself into a hero in the eyes of the larger world through his tireless struggles in politics, spirituality and practice of non-violent, passive resistance to racial injustice in South Africa. Many of us in India have the image of Gandhi as one who was born a Mahatma, lived as a Mahatma and died as THE Mahatma. This book shows that Gandhi was actually a work in progress and how South Africa shaped him into becoming the man that he was to become later in the eyes of the world.

I was broadly conversant with Gandhi's struggles in the period 1893-1914 for the civil and political rights of Indians in South africa and his approach to working within the British empire and that of his belief in gradual rather than revolutionary change. But what I learnt new from this book was that in this African endeavour, there was deep and passionate participation from Tamils, Parsees, Muslims, Christians, European Jews, and the Chinese. Only the native Africans were conspicuous by their absence. People like Henry Polak, Millie Polak, Sonja Schlesin, Hermann Kallenbach, Thambi Naidoo, Joseph Doke, L.W.Ritch contributed greatly to the Indians' struggle. Unfortunately, I have never heard of most of them thanks to my high school text books in India. Henry Polak and Kallenbach were completely devoted to Gandhi, inspired by his unusual broad-mindedness for the times and his readiness for self-sacrifice. Millie Polak and Sonja Schlesin greatly admired him for many of his qualities and threw themselves fully into his struggles. The book also shows that it was the Tamil community which accepted Gandhi completely as their leader much more than his own Gujarathi community, even though Gandhi could not speak Tamil. The Chinese community, led by Leung Quinn, also joined the struggle. Interestingly, the Chinese saw the struggle in a broader light as a struggle to 'restore the pride of Asia and the Asiatics'.

One charge against Gandhi has been the question 'How come Gandhi never reached out to native Africans?'. The author himself says that though Gandhi was racially prejudiced against native Africans when he arrived in SA in 1893, it was also the sign of the times when all races were prejudiced against one another - the Indians looking at native Africans as less civilized than themselves and the whites looking at all dark races as genetically inferior in all aspects. However, to Gandhi's credit, over a span of twenty years he evolved to realize that the struggles of native Africans is no different from his own for the Indians and he came to empathize with their plight. For their part, the Africans had their prejudices about Indians as well. For example, the Zulu reformer John Dube remarks to a friend that while he had once thought the plantation coolies crude and uncivilized, now he had acquired a sense of respect for all Indians, looking at their indomitable spirit in rising against the unjust laws. The author also speculates that Mr. Pixley Seme, a young Zulu leader from Jo'burg, must have noticed on his visit to Gandhi's Tolstoy Farm that its residents included by ethnicity, Gujarathis, Tamils, North Indians and Europeans and by faith, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians - all managing to overcome distinctions of sect and tribe and present a united front to the rulers. This must have resulted in him publishing an article saying, "...the demons of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basutos and every other native must be buried and forgotten...we are one people. These divisions, jealousies are the cause of all our woes and our backwardness and ignorance today...".

The other charge that is laid at Gandhi's door of 'sainthood' is his 'awful' treatment of his wife and children. The author, though an admirer of Gandhi like me, is frank about Gandhi's shortcomings in this sphere. Gandhi was the traditional overbearing Hindu patriarch, making his wife and children do what he intended for them. It is doubly sad because Gandhi himself benefited immensely by the early death of his father in that he could chalk out his own path in life, by going to London to study Law and on return to India, moving to Bombay to seek a career as a lawyer. When he failed in that endeavour, he chose to leave for South Africa, all of which being possible because his father was not around to force him to stay in Porbander and do what he thought was best for him. Gandhi seemed to have reflected little on all this as he chalked out the paths for all his four children, much against their wishes. Indian Psychologists would perhaps say that Gandhi exhibited the classic 'Yayati complex' of Indian men in the way that he forced his children to follow his ideals and values and circumscribed their freedom completely. As for his wife, Kasturba, women in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were completely dominated by their husbands' needs and wishes and diktats and Gandhi was in no way different. Still, the presence of the feminist Millie Polak and Sonja Schlesin had its effect on Gandhi resulting in Kasturba and other Tamil women carrying out satyagrahas which resulted in Kasturba eventually spending three months in prison. This was a great leap for Indian womanhood in those times and it is significant that Gandhi did not forbid the women's activism outside the home.

Gandhi's life inspires extreme emotions both in his admirers and enemies. His detractors -The Left in India, the Hindu nationalists, sections of Dalits and sections of non-Indians - see him as a cunning politician, a quirky Luddite, a hypocrite or one who betrayed the majority Hindus in India. His avid admirers like Hermann Kallenbach see him as saintly and a mahatma and as one who appears once in a century or so. As for me, I fall in between. I admire Gandhi for his far-sightedness on the importance of non-violence and passive resistance methods and his vision of Hindu-Muslim unity in India, but not so much for his anti-industrialism, insistence on celibacy, naturopathy, religiosity etc. Depending on where one stands on Gandhi, this book will impact them accordingly. I thought it is a superb contribution to the life of the Mahatma.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The African Gandhi 27 May 2014
By Gertrude, the Innocent - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
One of the most amazing places I ever visited in India was completely by accident. I was on a bus in Delhi and was pretty much carried off the bus by the scores of people getting off from it at the same time. There was no chance or point to getting back on so I sort of looked around and saw a long line. It was my experience that any place in India that had a long line was a good place to be. (That is not true in many other countries.) This line went all the way from the road to a place I could not even see. It was Raj Ghat, the memorial place with a platform that marks the location of Gandhi’s cremation. It was an extraordinary place to be. The sights, the smells, the sounds, all of it added up to become a moment in place and time.

Anyway, it has always seemed strange to me that Gandhi’s early life was so missing in so many biographical works. This has been a problem for me while teaching high school level classes because I don’t think if it until right then when someone asks. It’s an awkward time. Admittedly, the term Baby Mohandas is not someone I ever thought of before. One imagined servants raised him.

Guha’s book begins with the castes and an understanding of the place and time in which Gandhi was born. Guha is a storyteller and it comes through in every page of this book. I see in some of the criticisms of this book that many times seem jumbled. For me, though, it was a matter of referencing the people who would continue to be important in Gandhi's life.

This book is beautifully written. It is in a plain language, not one that is overfilled with asides, or those terrible passages that come straight out of a history book chapter. I don’t generally read biographies unless it is likely to be really interesting. This one is worth the journey.

--Gertrude of Amazon
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