Order at the discounted price of £24 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

The story of Gandhi’s early experiences of segregation, sparked by South Africa’s apartheid

"Gandhi before India", By Ramachandra Guha (Allen Lane, £30) » 

In Natal on South Africa’s eastern coast, during the apartheid years, school tours of local historical sites would often take in the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg with its fine Victorian public buildings.

A standard site was the railway station, yet here the buildings were not the main item of interest. Rather, the teachers indicated that we pupils should take a special look at the “famous” platform. Why famous? We asked, but the teachers had no answer. Our touring parties concluded it must be something about the wideness of the platform that made it special. Once there was some vague talk about a foreign holy man who passed by here, but who he was we were not told.

It was only much later that I discovered it was on this platform that Mohandas Gandhi, then a young, unknown Indian lawyer in transit to Pretoria, was made to feel the full weight of the colony’s “colour prejudice”. As the possessor of a first-class railway ticket, he had had to be escorted off his train by a constable when he refused to remove to third class. And from that point, history tells us, he resolved to fight the injustices of racial segregation to which his fellow Indians in South Africa were subject. His South African years would “sow the seeds of his fight for national self-respect”.

It is almost unbelievable to think that there was a time not so long ago when a state’s obfuscation of history to maintain white supremacy went to the extent of erasing the imprint on colonial Pietermaritzburg of one of the outstanding leaders of the 20th century. Significant changes since then have, in respect of Gandhi, steadily brought into sharper focus the 21 formative years he spent in South Africa. It is this fascinating tale of Gandhi’s shaping of two nationalist struggles, India’s and South Africa’s, that Ramachandra Guha’s accomplished biography – the first volume of two – tells. It gives the back-story of Gandhi’s emergence as a satyagraha warrior. 

Thanks to the biographical work of historians like Judith Brown, Martin Prozesky and Stanley Wolpert, the shaping influence of South Africa on Gandhi’s vision for India has been acknowledged for some time. Gandhi before India extends and consolidates this case for the “outer-national” formation of the national leader. Guha’s title, which riffs on an earlier work, India after Gandhi, succinctly captures this apparently contradictory core idea.

Gandhi before India is supremely a historian’s biography, down to its evident relish for new documentary evidence. Gandhi’s “sometimes forgotten years” up to 1914 are recounted in a respectful way with little psychological speculation. The different phases in the making of the Mahatma  are traced in strict chronological fashion, like symbolic stages in the life of the Hindu god Ram (the analogy is explicitly made).

It is ultimately not the myth of Gandhi, but his creation of a myth of India while in South Africa, that this book seeks to explain, and in this it triumphs. Gandhi before India is as exhaustively researched a biography of the African Gandhi as we will have for some time. 

Guha’s work has previously been distinguished for the breadth of its resources, and this book is no exception. He has turned up “dozens of letters” by both Gandhi and his associates not in the official Collected Works, as well as Gandhi’s first campaigning articles (on behalf the Vegetarian Society in London), and a previously untapped wealth of newspaper resources. The result is a biography with a remarkable ear for the resonances of Gandhi’s work and time – for the fan-mail and hate-mail; for overheard disagreements with family and colleagues; for his exchanges with political acquaintances, including his enemies. 

Guha’s unemphatic style, though it gives a well-contextualised portrait of his subject, does have a drawback, especially when it comes to an individual as complicated as Gandhi. As Guha avoids dwelling on obscurities in the record, some of the complexities of Gandhi’s remarkable story are elided with the result that he often remains an enigma, as both an activist and a leader. 

This is most evident in the relative lack of attention paid Gandhi’s racial blind spot: the fact that this campaigner for “non-white” British subjects’ rights had nothing to say about the absolute lack of rights of native Africans in colonial southern Africa. This leader who would set an important political example for a number of African and African-origin leaders, including Martin Luther King, Kenneth Kaunda and Nelson Mandela, did not himself, while in Africa, regard Africans as deserving of the same political rights as other oppressed people. Guha’s implication is that in Gandhi’s view the payback for his demands for Indians’ citizenship was an agreement to observe the racial status quo in other respects. Yet this was the same Gandhi who dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of “racial parity”.

A related oversight lies in the treatment of Gandhi’s legendary charisma. What was the magic radiating from this small man in a dhoti that raised a mass popular movement? The book’s argument that the key constituents of his anti-colonial politics were acquired and seasoned “as the iron framework of the South African racial state was fixed into place” is powerfully made, yet the charisma itself is left relatively unexplained.  There has been some fascinating postcolonial analysis of how this radiance emerges from Gandhi’s creative exploitation of his own contradictions: of how, though averse to technology, he was as media-savvy as any 21st-century celebrity; of his loyalty to the British Empire in spite of his fierce critique of its methods. Like Mandela, who owes so much to Gandhi’s example, Gandhi’s radiance shimmers brightly through his deft manipulation of these multiple inconsistencies.

However, the numinous qualities of charisma are not Guha’s concern. His focus is on the journalistic, legal and activist practices that went into the making of Gandhi’s potent legacy of non-violence. The biography makes an especially important contribution not only in its grounding of these practices in new material, but also in its detailed tracing of those infinitesimal changes in Gandhi’s thinking on freedom that would transform for good the modern world’s agendas of resistance. It is ultimately not the myth of Gandhi, but his creation of a myth of India while in South Africa, that this book seeks to explain, and in this it triumphs. Gandhi before India is as exhaustively researched a biography of the African Gandhi as we will have for some time. 

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?