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The lawyer who became the Mahatma
- Ramachandra Guha launches book tracing the lost years of Gandhi

You gave us a lawyer; we gave you back a Mahatma.

This is what a South African friend had said to Ramachandra Guha in 2002, around the time the historian was starting out on a massive research project that took over 10 years of digging out and delving into reams of letters, newspaper reports, pamphlets, diary entries and more, spread across four continents. And what did Guha do with this staggering wealth of material? He gave us back the story of the making of our Mahatma.

On Wednesday, Guha was in Calcutta to launch that book, Gandhi Before India, part 1 in a two-book series, which may become three too. Speaking to Metro ahead of the launch, he said, “The first 40-odd years of Gandhi’s life have been under-researched, particularly the South Africa years — his friends, associates, rivals, the nature of his struggles, how they evolved, who funded them, who participated, who withdrew and how he developed his own views on religion, on faith, on diet, on social equality, through his years in Natal and the Transvaal.”

All this is told in his 673-page new book, published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Gandhi Before India was launched at the ICCR on Ho Chi Minh Sarani, in association with The Telegraph, where Guha sat in conversation with Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph. Mukherjee opened with one of the two paradoxes about Gandhi that jump out at the reader just a few pages into the book, that of Gandhi becoming truly “Indian” only in South Africa. “This was, in fact, one of the things I myself discovered about Gandhi when I was researching this book,” admitted Guha. Gandhi’s first brush with a different way of life may have been while he was studying law in England but it was only within the Indian diaspora in South Africa that he started to understand India’s heterogeneity of language, religion and class.

For here was a middle-class bania from Kathiawar, an indifferent student and an unremarkable lawyer — some uncharitable souls might even say failed lawyer — and he was suddenly dealing not just with Gujaratis and banias but with Muslim merchants, indentured labourers, traders, hawkers and various other denominations of Indians that he was unlikely to even meet if he had stayed back in India.

It was also in South Africa that he had some of the most influential friendships, like with his housemates Henry and Millie Polak, his secretary Sonja Schlesin or Tolstoyan architect Hermann Kallenbach.

The book also talks about Gandhi’s deep friendship with fellow student Pranjivan Mehta, who was the first to recognise the precocious genius of the man and call him the Mahatma. Then, the man who Gandhi considered his mentor, a jeweller-cum-Jain thinker called Raychand.

“These people have been written out of Gandhi history, but they were far more influential than say Nehru or Patel, because by the time Gandhi came back to India in 1915, he was already the Mahatma and he now had either chelas or antagonists like Jinnah and Ambedkar,” Guha pointed out.

The other paradox that is evident from Gandhi Before India is that the Father of the Nation was a rather unfair father to his own children, especially his oldest son Harilal, and even the next one, Manilal. But it was his third son Ramdas’s mention that injected a shot of humour into the evening. Asked more than once by members of the audience about his “mistreatment of Subhas Bose” and why Bengal had never warmed up to the Bapu, Guha mentioned a letter he has discovered, where Ramdas writes to Padmaja Naidu in 1959-60 after she became the governor of Bengal. “Even though he congratulates Naidu, Ramdas says, ‘I don’t think you can change Bengal’s hatred for my father.’ Well, I think Gopalkrishna Gandhi might have changed that sentiment a bit?” quipped Guha.

In his prologue, Guha lists a few similarities between Lord Ram and Gandhi, and ends with “both have enjoyed a vigorous and contentious after-life.” Well, might we just add, given its depth, detail and rich discourse, this book too is sure to enjoy a “vigorous and contentious” shelf-life.