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An Enigma: How Did Such A Man Wield Great Power Over The Indian Continent?
on 4 December 2013
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.
The author gives voluminous detail about Gandhi's personal habits, for example his dietary fads, his obsessions with dress and sexual hygiene. He was utterly ruthless in imposing these on the communities he created. It is suggested here, others have done the same, that in this respect he was inspired by Leo Tolstoy and his emphasis on back-to-nature.
He imposed autocratic rules on his household, never failing to criticise his wife for her failings, real or imagined. When she was critically ill he told her he could not be with her because of the political struggle. He once made her travel back to his own Colony in torrential rain despite doctors telling him she might die. In short, he was a rather nasty domestic tyrant.
Gandhi's famous truth force was in fact 'stolen' from his many Quaker and Baptist friends. What is seldom pointed out by the admirers of this technique is that to have employed it (as some Dutch did in 1943) against Hitler or Stalin or Mao would have led to certain extermination. Gandhi's fortune was that the British had some scruples and some respect for the law.
This is a very well written account that reveals much of his subject's life that has been ignored for far too long by other writers. It is a pity that the book is heavily weighted in favour of the views of Gandhi's friends and admirers. To be fair, Guha does quote at length Gladstone's views of Gandhi which are illuminating:'The workings of his conscience are inscrutable .....and produce complications in wholly unexpected places. His ethical and intellectual attitude...baffles the ordinary processes of thought'.
Guha makes clear that Gandhi dwelt on trivia as opposed to detail. Other writers have also pointed out that his much vaunted fasting was in fact emotional blackmail and it frequently failed. Nevertheless, this remarkable man grew up to hold sway over millions of Indians. We hope that in his second volume the author will reveal just how he achieved this.