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Gandhi Before India Paperback – 2 Oct 2014
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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. 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.
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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.
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. He has gone through letters, journals and had more conversations with people to get to know the Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi that we all grew up knowing and taking for granted as a part of history.
To me the book told a lot more about the Mahatma than I ever knew or was aware of. Maybe books such as these are meant to do that. To get you to know more so the dim view or opinions do not exist anymore. "Gandhi Before India" is a rich work on the man who was and what he became. The "what he" became part is yet to be documented by Mr. Guha and there is definitely a sequel of to this. I for one cannot wait for it.
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