[BOOK REVIEW] Weak face, a failure, hierarchal… whom are we talking about?

“With a weak face, hesitant in court, polite in print and courteous in conversation, [he] yet represented the first challenge to European domination in Natal.”

If you were to read just that one line, who would spring to mind as the [he]?

Gandhi Before India is a joy. There is no other way to describe the book and its narration. I would like to think I’ve read enough about and by Gandhi to know who he was; Yet, page after page, it became evident that it was the Mahatma that I grew up reading about, not Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the man.

There are charming insights into Gandhi as a young man, neglectful of his duties as a householder, taken in with his many friendships (the bromances of the time, so to speak).

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Amongst equals for a while

Not till he came to India did he really collaborate at an intellectual level with his countrymen, but by then he was the leader and on a pedestal… going well ahead of even his mentor Gokhale. On the other hand, his friends and influencers who worked on him, chipping away and polishing him up, were predominantly European. Be it Henry and Millie Polak who lived with Gandhi and Kasturba; Sonja Schlesin, his secretary; Annie Besant and other theosophists and ‘vegetarians’; Hermann Kallenbach, the rich man who gave fuel to Gandhi’s ideas of commune.

The author comments: “‘Revolutionary’ for a coloured couple and a white couple to live in the same house. […]

For Gandhi to befriend Polak, Kallenbach, West and company was an act of bravery; for them to befriend him was an act of defiance.”

Gandhi until he left Kathiawar had little worldly exposure, and was not much of a scholar. In England, studying to be a barrister, he was exposed to world that was at once both in conflict with the principles he grew up with and in sync with the curious mind he possessed.

Guha writes: “Leaving Bombay in 1888 a small-town Bania with the habits, manners and prejudices of his caste, six years later Gandhi had become a Hindu who befriended Christians and worked for Muslims while organising political campaigns in – of all places – Natal.”

While many aspects of his personality became broader, some became deeper. For instance, his move from cultural/religious to ethical vegetarianism was in England, through his association with the Vegetarian society.

His food habits became almost fetishes later on. There’s a charming anecdote of meetings in a high-end London hotel where he had everyone eating peanuts and oranges, leaving behind a mound of shells and peels.

But even before his activism began, in England, as a student, he moved in the circles of Theosophists and Vegetarians, one amongst them.

Guha notes: “In any case, the Englishman in England was less prejudiced than the Englishman abroad. In India, an Englishman was marked out as a member of the ruling race. Wherever we went, there were a ‘large number of dark-skinned men ready and willing to serve him in numerous ways’.”

Given that Gandhi’s belief in hierarchy of civilization continued for many years, one wonders if his indignation in South Africa was because of the inclusive manner in which he was treated in England. Would he have felt the same way, had he moved directly from India? After all, even in South Africa, it was the rights of fellow-Asiatics that he fought for, not the ‘kaffirs’.

About South Africa and the world today too

Make no mistake. The book is not Gandhi’s biography alone. It is also a searing commentary into the beginning of apartheid in one of the last settler states in the world.

Olive Schreiner, a South African author and supporter of Gandhi wrote: “The problems of the twentieth century will not be a repetition of those of the nineteenth or those which went before it. The walls dividing continents are breaking down: everywhere European, Asiatic and African will inter-lard. […] It will not always be the European who forms the upper level.”

We now know how naively optimistic she was.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Indians were seen as the main threat to creation of a settler state on the lines of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where whites dominated over a submissive native population.

We see the same fear now, don’t we? With migration in other parts of the world, of other ethnicities as well.

Living in the GCC, the book is a reminder that historical patterns are repetitive. Be it how cities develop or how governments run.

In the first issue of Indian Opinion, in June 1903, Gandhi writes, in South Africa, “if an European commits a crime or a moral delinquency, it is the individual: if it is an Indian, it is the nation.”

Sounds familiar? Remove nation, and insert religion?

Or this. Joseph Chamberlain who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies (1895) a liberal politician, on the franchise bill that did not distinguish between the “most ignorant and the most enlightened of the Natives of India,’ … “A bill which involves in a common disability all natives of India without any exception and which provides no machinery by which an Indian can free himself from his disability, whatever his intelligence, his education, or his stake in the country… would be an affront upon the people of India such as no British Government could be a party to.”

In the distinction he seeks itself is a prejudice so deep-rooted. Isn’t that what’s happening in Palestine and Israel?

An English surprise

What took me by surprise was also how liberal England was in England, even if it didn’t extend that to its colonies.

The author writes: “In Britain it was assumed that, with guidance and patronage, a select group of Indians could come to keep the company of white men.”

Chamberlain himself sat on government benches with Indian colleagues (Dadabhai Naoroji and then Mancherjee Bhownaggree).

A 1884 agreement signed in London guaranteed the rights of Her Majesty’s subjects to trade and live where they pleased in South African Republic. Indian traders asked only that this clause be honoured.

The wealthy shall prevail

But SA constitution states in no uncertain term that there could be no equality between the whites and coloured races.

And the crown seemed incapable of influencing SA in any substantial manner. The SA constitution prevailed over all else.

Of course, this could be because Transvaal accounted for than a quarter of world’s supply of Gold in 1898.

And now black gold rules.

Quoted in the book is an interesting description of Johannesburg in early 1900s, by Flora Shaw: “It is hideous and detestable, luxury without order, sensual enjoyment without art, riches without refinement, display without dignity.”

There was an overwhelming preponderance of men in Joburg: 2:1 Male: Female ration. 10:1 amongst black population. The social diversity was enormous.

“A city were ‘everybody came from somewhere else, social arrangements had to be constructed from scratch and everything was up for grabs.’”

Dubai? Doha? What parallels shall we draw now…

A narration of love

Ramachandra Guha writes about his subject with great authority and brutal honesty (exposing the man’s failings of which there are quite a few). The narration is also frequently curious, making juxtapositions on Gandhi’s intent when none was on record; There is a longing to know more, and he promises it in the next installment Gandhi After India.

More than anything, the story is written with a passion one would reserve for a long-term partner, lovingly dissected.

Guha writes: “Memories are notoriously misleading, not least because memories are notoriously fallible. When he wrote his autobiography in the 1920s, Gandhi was a great Indian nationalist, the symbol of a country struggling for political freedom. How to explain to himself or to his readers why, back in 1902, he had left the motherland once more? In truth, the decision to leave for South Africa was mandated not by the mysterious ways of fate*, but by the mundane facts of failure.”

The making of a feminist

But, first a parenting lesson. Harilal, his son, after having a decision made for him, tells Gandhi: “You did not allow me to measure my capabilities; you measured them for me.”

Oops! Guilty. The wont of parents to take decisions that they think is best suited for their child.

Now about us, women.

Though his mother was an influential figure in his childhood, Gandhi was no feminist. Not till much later.

And he was goaded down that path by his wife, friend (Millie) and his secretary Sonja, mainly.

There is an interesting exchange between Gandhi and Kasturba, when Gandhi decided to return the gifts (including jewellery) he received on his first departure from Durban. His wife protests. Gandhi says it’s not for her to decide what to do with gifts presented to him. Kasturba rebukes: “But service rendered by you is as good as rendered by me. I have toiled and moiled for you day and night. Is that no service?”

What a sharp and true comment that is.

Millie who shared he home with Gandhi was also quite critical of him and Indian patriarchy.

When Gandhi recounted the story of Savitri to Millie, she said the story actually proved her point. “In Indian mythology, it appeared ‘woman is made to serve man, even to wrestling with the God of Death for him’. In myth and in reality (seeing how Gandhi treated Kasturba), Millie found Indian women ‘always waiting on the pleasure of some man’.”

Years later, in 1934, Gandhi says: ‘When I was in South Africa, I had realised that if I did not serve the cause of women, all my work would remain unfinished.’

Eighty years later, where do Indian women stand?

 

 

*Not much success in the Indian courts. Could not break into ranks of well-known lawyers.

 

 

 

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