At the end of the 19th century, Mohandas Gandhi was a young lawyer living in Durban, South Africa. He left his house in Beach Grove every morning for an office on Mercury Lane, where he spent much of the day helping his fellow Indian immigrants navigate the onerous colonial bureaucracy. He kept meticulous records, including a logbook of correspondence — from an English missionary and local planters, and a series of letters exchanged with the Protector of Indian Immigrants about the treatment of indentured laborers. In January of 1897, and again a few months later, he heard from another lawyer who was, like him, a Gujarati who had studied in England and then struggled to establish a practice in Bombay. The contents of these letters are unknown. In a remarkable new biography, “Gandhi Before India,” Ramachandra Guha gingerly speculates about what they might have been. Expressions of support for Gandhi’s nascent activism? Or perhaps “explorations of interest in a possible career in South Africa”? Guha wisely stops there. What is not in doubt is the name in Gandhi’s logbook — “M. A. Jinnah,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would become the founder of Pakistan. “All we now know is that, a full 50 years before partition and the independence of India and Pakistan, the respective ‘Fathers’ of those nations were in correspondence.”
Guha’s description of this encounter is evidence of his strengths as a historian. He mines primary sources — in this case, records of Gandhi’s law practice from the archives in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, and the logbook dug out of a filing cupboard in the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, India — to establish that Gandhi and Jinnah were in contact a decade earlier than previously documented. And he writes vividly enough to compete with that bête noire of all Gandhi biographies, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi.” (In the movie, they meet at a garden party in India, where a skeptical Jinnah adjusts his monocle while the turbaned Mahatma smiles beatifically.) Guha reminds us of everything these two legendary opposites had in common — language, education and the desperate striving of the ambitious immigrant. “Gandhi Before India” is full of such revelations, each one a delight for the reader.
Early on, Guha spells out how his technique differs from those of previous biographers: He uses the records of contemporaries to complement and sometimes challenge Gandhi’s own account. Gandhi was prolific — the first 12 volumes of his collected works run to 5,000 pages — but, Guha explains, “This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted.”
This approach helps illuminate Gandhi’s time in South Africa. (As the title indicates, “Gandhi Before India” ends with his final departure, in 1914. A planned second volume will pick up the thread in India.) What Gandhi achieved legally for Indians in South Africa was modest, but by filling out the narrative with Gandhi’s colleagues and rivals, Guha makes a persuasive case that this period is just as significant politically as the years in India. Through the mutual wariness of Gandhi and John Dube, his neighbor and a pioneer of the South African freedom struggle, Guha sketches the marginal, often conflicted role of Indians in African nationalist movements. The frustrations of South Africa’s Gujarati Muslim merchants, Gandhi’s main political patrons, prefigure the mistrust that would later split apart the movement in India. Guha also uses the nervous functionaries of the Raj to show why Gandhi’s agitation in South Africa was so threatening to the larger colonial project — it forced authorities to acknowledge that under its veneer of liberal paternalism, the British Empire was built on racism. “Every patriotic South African looks forward to the establishment of a large and vigorous European population here,” the governor of Transvaal, Lord Selborne, wrote. “The immigration of an Asiatic population on a large scale he regards as a menace to the realization of this ideal.”
Most of the revelations in this book are political, not personal. Readers looking for salacious details about Gandhi’s sexual life will be disappointed. Guha does not venture far into that territory, except to recount the tale of Maud Polak, sister of Gandhi’s old friend Henry Polak, whose apparent infatuation with Gandhi led her to chase him from England to South Africa. “She cannot tear herself away from me,” Gandhi wrote in one letter to Henry. Guha is more interested in giving the well-known contours of Gandhi’s life a new gloss. He shows, for example, how Gandhi’s sexual abstinence and vegetarianism were informed by a long engagement with Christian nonconformism.
These ideas are thoroughly explored elsewhere, but Guha’s moving portrait of Gandhi as an immigrant is new. “Mohandas Gandhi had been a journeyman between continents,” he writes. “Born and raised in Kathiawar, he had braved convention and community to study in England. . . . Having tried, and failed, to establish himself in Rajkot and Bombay, on his third try Gandhi became a successful lawyer in Durban.” Gandhi was part of a wave of Indian immigrants who left the subcontinent in the late 19th century to find work in other parts of the Empire, from Fiji to Mauritius to Trinidad. His struggles were their struggles: estrangement from his wife, Kasturba, and their sons; financial worries (at one point he considers abandoning law to study medicine); and a lifelong sense of indebtedness toward his brothers, who pawned the family jewelry to pay for his education.
Guha populates Gandhi’s world with a Bloomsbury’s worth of fascinating characters. In India, we meet the dissolute Sheikh Mehtab, a childhood friend who is shunned after arranging a disastrous visit for the young Gandhi to a brothel but later becomes a bard of the Indian struggle. In Durban, Leung Quinn enters the scene as a steadfast leader of the South African Chinese, traveling to India to preach the gospel of Asian solidarity. And hovering in the background is Sonja Schlesin, Gandhi’s secretary, who cut her hair and began wearing a shirt and tie as part of her bid to become the first woman in South Africa to qualify for the bar. Rejected, she visited jailed passive resisters, rushing “about on her bicycle from prison to prison, carrying food and messages.”
These small details give the book a cinematic richness. After his family moved to Johannesburg, Guha writes, Gandhi “rose early, helped his wife grind flour for the day’s meals, then walked the five miles to his office in Rissik Street, carrying a packed lunch of wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a selection of seasonal fruits.” When Kasturba is released from a difficult jail term, Henry Polak describes the scene via telegram: “Reduced skeleton tottering appearance old woman heart breaking sight.”
Guha falters, though, in explaining why it all matters. He tends to summarize rather than analyze. “There were, circa 1906, six separate strands in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi,” he writes near the end of one chapter. And in a work of this depth, it seems glib to mention that “a prominent Chinese blogger has a portrait of Gandhi on his profile” as evidence of Gandhi’s relevance to China’s pro-democracy movement. Why does Gandhi matter now? Perhaps the fullness of his life is evidence enough. Guha introduces us to a stressed-out parent, a self-righteous advocate for raw food and a risk-taking newspaper editor (he coined the word “satyagraha” with a reader contest — an early experiment in user-generated content). Above all, he was a skillful politician who allowed his adversaries to sharpen his thinking. Fittingly, Guha leaves the last word on Gandhi in South Africa to his nemesis, Gen. Jan Christian Smuts: “The saint has left our shores — I sincerely hope forever.” Jinnah, presumably, reappears in the sequel.
GANDHI BEFORE INDIA
By Ramachandra Guha
Illustrated. 673 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.