The death of Karamchand Gandhi in 1884 would have momentous consequences. At the time, his son Mohandas was in his teens and already married. In the wake of his father’s death his mother Putlibai became the family’s matriarch. She must have been remarkable. Indian society was caste-ridden, and the roles of women were strictly determined. Putlibai was “devout, but not dogmatic” and belonged to a Hindu sect that had Islamic influences. Austere Jain monks sometimes visited her home. A Brahmin friend urged her to send young Mohandas to London to obtain a law degree. Although this appealed to her son, it was considered a rash proposal that conflicted with prevailing attitudes of “orthodox Hindus” who tended to eschew travel to faraway places. A young man from the Bania caste should remain in his cultural sphere and not venture to a London teeming with temptations that could corrupt an Eastern visitor.
It is certain that his father would have never permitted Mohandas to go overseas. But the decision was his mother’s to make. Putlibai consulted a Jain monk whom she knew and trusted. The monk said that Mohandas could leave if “he would not eat meat or drink wine, or be unfaithful to his wife. After an oath to this effect was administered, the mother gave her consent.” Her decision initiated the remarkable journey of Mohandas Gandhi who would eventually be known worldwide and attain the revered title of Mahatma or Great Soul.
With erudition and affection, author Ramachandra Guha has composed a magnificent tome, “Gandhi Before India,” covering the formative years Gandhi spent as a student in England and later as a lawyer, organizer and activist in South Africa. It is a captivating chronicle. Guha was inspired to pursue this story after giving a seminar entitled “Arguments with Gandhi” at Berkeley in 1998. He writes: “The course turned out to be the most enjoyable I have ever taught. This, I realized, was almost entirely due to my choice of subject. How many students in Berkeley would have enrolled for a course called ‘Arguments with De Gaulle’? And if an American historian came to the University of Delhi and proposed a course entitled ‘Arguments with Roosevelt’, would there have been any takers at all? Roosevelt, Churchill, De Gaulle — these are all great national leaders, whose appeal steadily diminishes the further one strays from their nations’ boundaries. Of all modern politicians and statesmen, only Gandhi is an authentically global figure.”
In September of 1888, Gandhi sailed for London. He was not yet 20. Gandhi seems to have been indifferent to the British political scene of Liberals and Tories, likewise radicals of Communist or Socialist persuasion. Guha states: “His interest was taken up with a cult of English dissenters possibly even more radical, and certainly very much more obscure.” These were the people of the London Vegetarian Society. They were inspired by dietary practices of Hindu India. Gandhi was influenced by the writing of Henry Salt who authored biographies of Henry David Thoreau and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Salt’s “Plea for Vegetarianism” impressed young Gandhi. “For Salt, vegetarians were the moral vanguard of the human race.” In affiliating with broadminded advocates of vegetarianism and theosophy, a spiritual belief system that professes an absolute reality beyond human thought, Gandhi encountered little racism. He befriended English persons who “sought affinity of ideas and lifestyles” and showed little concern for ethnicity or skin color. His experiences in these circles were enriching and mind expanding.
Gandhi returned to India with his law degree but was unable to get established. Then an “opportunity beckoned in South Africa.” An Indian Muslim merchant was suing his cousin who had stopped payments for the purchase of seven shops located in South Africa’s Transvaal. The merchant’s records were written in Gujarat so an attorney was needed who knew that language. It was Gandhi’s native tongue. He got the job. In April of 1893 he set sail for Africa. It was “the second time in less than five years” that he would journey far from his wife Kasturba and children. Gandhi’s African sojourn would later have an enormous impact on India and the world.
Nothing prepared Gandhi for the racist viciousness he encountered in South Africa. Both the British and Boers assumed white European superiority. Shortly after his arrival Gandhi was booted off his first-class train coach though he had a ticket. He had protested an order to move to a third-class compartment. A day later he was punched by a white stagecoach driver who prevented him from sitting inside even though he again had a ticket. Despite these indignities Gandhi organized a corps of ambulance workers in support of the British during the Boer War. He felt strongly that this was an opportunity to demonstrate that Indians were loyal to the British Empire and that it might help mitigate discrimination. With the same hope, as many as 30,000 native blacks volunteered on the side of Britain. Once the war ended these sacrifices by people of color had little effect on the omnipresent racism.
The turbulent 20 years in South Africa were the crucible in which Gandhi evolved his philosophy of nonviolent truth force, satyagraha. During this time he wrote his first book entitled “Hind Swaraj.” Gandhi “needed to write a manifesto for the freedom of India that was not derivative; that was based on the traditions of the subcontinent rather than on received models of European nationalism.” Gandhi’s South African period is an epic unto itself before his return to India and the spectacular nonviolent campaign for Indian independence. Guha’s book is packed with a panoply of politicians, activists and visionaries of multifarious ethnicities, religions and cultures. It is a sumptuous homage to a man whose life and teachings still resonate in our own troubled times.