Historian and The Telegraph columnist Ramachandra Guha was in Calcutta a day before Durga Puja to launch Gandhi Before India, which tells the story of how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became the Mahatma. Published by Allen Lane and priced at Rs 899, this 673-page hardback is the first in a three-part series on Gandhi by Guha. A Metro chat.
|Ramachandra Guha at Taj Bengal on October 9.
Picture by Rashbehari Das
The jacket says this book will “radically alter our understanding and appreciation” of Gandhi….
Well, that’s my claim, the reader may agree or not (smiles). See, the first 40-odd years of Gandhi’s life have been under-researched, particularly the South African period. His friends, associates, rivals, the nature of his struggles, how they evolved, who funded them, who participated, who withdrew… then how he developed his own views on religion, on faith, on diet, on social equality, all through his years in Natal and the Transvaal. So, I think this book gives some sense of the development of Gandhi the politician, the social reformer, the moral philosopher and the writer.
You also say we’ll get to understand the making of the Mahatma better through his flaws and shortcomings…
I think the important thing is he was always learning, always questing. In this period, his main failure was with regard to his family. Later on, when he comes to India [which is the subject of Guha’s next book], there will be other failures, like his failure to understand the importance of the challenge of the Muslim League….
Right now, you get a sense of a man so absorbed with his public life, with his activism, and so driven by the desire to leave his middle-class professional life behind him and embrace a new vocation of service and sacrifice that he is quite insensitive to the claims of his family — his wife and his two eldest children, Harilal and Manilal. He doesn’t recognise what they would like to do with themselves and also places extremely unreal demands on them. Harilal goes to jail eight times but that is not enough because he’s not a brahmachari. Then he tells Manilal, ‘Okay, Harilal has failed me, but you must be a perfect satyagrahi and a perfect brahmachari.’
This book shows the journey of Gandhi from a middle-class bania to being called the Mahatma…
Yes, I started with the question, how did a person outgrow the conventions, stereotypes and prejudices of his community, his caste and his upbringing? A part of it was because Gandhi was always questing, always searching. His best friend in school was a Muslim. When he goes to England as a young man, he joins a vegetarian society and shares a room with an Englishman.
Partly it is his inner desire to go beyond his upbringing, to build bridges with people of other communities. But as important as his personality is the context. And this book argues that it’s only in the diaspora that he understood the heterogeneity of his own homeland. In South Africa, there are Tamils and Hindi-speakers, there are Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians. He also met people of other communities. Without Millie Polak [his housemate], may be he would have been a conservative patriarch who would have never understood the importance of gender rights.
If he had lived in Rajkot or Bombay, he would have never had a woman friend. Because that was the context of the time. As I say in the conclusion of my book, the great nationalists of that time, like [Dadabhai] Naoroji and [Gopal Krishna] Gokhale, never had woman friends because they too were middle-class.
Then of course, he had this very radical woman secretary, Sonja Schlesin. I mean if she had been a submissive, normal secretary rather than someone who teased Gandhi, questioned him, challenged him…. all this shaped him. And so many of these characters have been largely written out of Gandhi’s story.
Even his friend Pranjivan Mehta, whom I call the Engels to Gandhi’s Marx. These are the people with whom he had relative equality, even though he was still the leader.
Years later, Gandhi says, ‘In India I did not have associates of this kind.’ See, in India he either had disciples or he had adversaries. So he had Nehru, Patel etc, or he had Ambedkar, Jinnah and of course the British.
How did you research for this book?
I looked at letters to Gandhi, which are located partly in Sabarmati and partly in the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi and no one looks at them because they are unpublished. Then I found this rare collection of newspaper articles about him in Sabarmati, clippings from his South African phase.
In Delhi, in the National Archives, there’s lots of interesting material on indentured labourers… actually on the whole diaspora. The British Colonial Archives in London also had a lot of material.
Then there were the private papers of other people. There are some papers of [Henry] Polak in Oxford and some in London. The papers of Joseph Doke I found in Johannesburg, in a Baptist archive, because he was a Baptist.
Pranjivan’s letters were in Sabarmati; they were in Gujarati and I got them translated. Then I was able to go to Haifa in Israel for [Tolstoyan architect and Gandhi’s friend] Hermann Kallenbach’s papers.
Also, Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi has a huge collection of documents on microfilm that they had got from South Africa — a large collection of government records about Natal and some unpublished Gandhi letters. I gathered the material for more than a decade.
You’ve said Millie Polak and Sonja Schlesin often argued with him and refused to follow him blindly. Did Gandhi carry this openness of mind to India as well?
Well, I think I’ll have to come to that [in the second book], I don’t want to anticipate that. But clearly, he’s adapting himself, he’s reflecting. Even involving women in the satyagraha was a radical thing. Because, in 1930, an Indian woman wouldn’t go to jail, because the jailer was of a strange caste and all of that. Women stared participating in satyagraha only in the 1930s.
Certainly on the question of religion and language he opens up. His philosophy of inter-faith harmony and religious pluralism develops in South Africa. So does his linguistic pluralism.
He ran a journal, Indian Opinion, in four languages in South Africa — English, Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. Could there have been a journal in India in four languages?! Tilak published in Marathi and English, Ramananda Chatterjee published journals in Bengali and English but here are four!
The distinctiveness of Gandhi’s method is that it is opposed to simple petitioning as well as to armed struggle. So, he starts with petitions, he writes these 36-page pamphlets and posts them to every legislator and starts a newspaper… he’s appealing to the ruler’s conscience. When that fails, he courts arrest and starts the satyagraha in 1907-08. He visits London in 1906 and 1909 and realises that petitioning may be too polite and too genteel, on the other hand armed struggle is immoral and will lead to even more chaos. So Gandhi’s whole theoretical and practical understanding of non-violence as a political method evolves in South Africa and that’s why I have paid that phase so much attention. And this is his legacy not just to India but to the whole world — Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi.
There are many claimants to Gandhi’s legacy today in India — the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress Party, Narendra Modi, Anna Hazare, Aam Aadmi Party, Mamata Banerjee.... Do any of them do justice to him?
None of them do. But many people who actually follow Gandhi don’t claim his legacy. See, there was an activist side to Gandhi and there was a constructive work side. I think a lot of environmentalists, like Chandi Prasad Bhatt of the Chipko Andolan, even Medha Patkar — though sometimes may be she’s too uncompromising for a Gandhian — yet her commitment to non-violence, her sacrifice, her ability to mobilise poor people, her physical courage, or Ela Bhatt of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association of India). There are the people who embody Gandhi’s legacy. There’s a very nice book called Bapu Kuti by Rajni Bakshi published by Penguin and it’s an account of some interesting contemporary activists who are inspired by Gandhi.
Certainly the politicians use him cynically and instrumentally. Narendra Modi is as far removed from Gandhi as anyone can be, because he’s such an arrogant, megalomaniac chap. Gandhi stressed on dialogue and understanding, Narendra Modi cannot have a dialogue because when he speaks, he doesn’t listen. And he’s full of his macho stuff, the 56-inch chest he’s always boasting about, these are things profoundly un-Gandhian. And he has no team workers.
If you see in this book, the way Gandhi always talks in public and in private about Thambi Naidoo, Sonja, about Cachalia.., about the Polaks. Modi gives credit to no one, as if whatever is happening in Gujarat is all him.
Likewise the Congress party is totally cynical and instrumental… Gandhi never promoted his own family.
Tell us about the books that will follow this one.
The second one will be a sequel from 1915 to 1948, tracing Gandhi’s life, his social, political, spiritual and personal journey. Eventually I want to write a third book, which will be on Gandhi’s global influence. So, the three books are South African Gandhi, Indian Gandhi and global Gandhi. It’s a long-term project.