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on April 15, 2014
I was hesitant to buy this book because I was skeptical as to what more that is new can be written about Mahatma Gandhi. After all, the Govt of India had published 100 volumes of his collected works after nearly 40 years of sustained effort in assembling them. Still, the title kindled my interest because I realized that I know little about Gandhi's first 45 years of life, which were spent substantially outside India. In fact, for most of us in India, the window into Gandhi's life before he came back to India, was provided only by Richard Attenborough's film 'Gandhi'. As I finished reading this book, I am amazed that Dr.Guha is able to show us so much about Gandhi's life that I have been completely unaware of. The book shows how Gandhi was born a Gujarathi bania, grew up in Gujarat with all the prejudices and quirks of his caste and gradually transformed himself into a hero in the eyes of the larger world through his tireless struggles in politics, spirituality and practice of non-violent, passive resistance to racial injustice in South Africa. Many of us in India have the image of Gandhi as one who was born a Mahatma, lived as a Mahatma and died as THE Mahatma. This book shows that Gandhi was actually a work in progress and how South Africa shaped him into becoming the man that he was to become later in the eyes of the world.

I was broadly conversant with Gandhi's struggles in the period 1893-1914 for the civil and political rights of Indians in South africa and his approach to working within the British empire and that of his belief in gradual rather than revolutionary change. But what I learnt new from this book was that in this African endeavour, there was deep and passionate participation from Tamils, Parsees, Muslims, Christians, European Jews, and the Chinese. Only the native Africans were conspicuous by their absence. People like Henry Polak, Millie Polak, Sonja Schlesin, Hermann Kallenbach, Thambi Naidoo, Joseph Doke, L.W.Ritch contributed greatly to the Indians' struggle. Unfortunately, I have never heard of most of them thanks to my high school text books in India. Henry Polak and Kallenbach were completely devoted to Gandhi, inspired by his unusual broad-mindedness for the times and his readiness for self-sacrifice. Millie Polak and Sonja Schlesin greatly admired him for many of his qualities and threw themselves fully into his struggles. The book also shows that it was the Tamil community which accepted Gandhi completely as their leader much more than his own Gujarathi community, even though Gandhi could not speak Tamil. The Chinese community, led by Leung Quinn, also joined the struggle. Interestingly, the Chinese saw the struggle in a broader light as a struggle to 'restore the pride of Asia and the Asiatics'.

One charge against Gandhi has been the question 'How come Gandhi never reached out to native Africans?'. The author himself says that though Gandhi was racially prejudiced against native Africans when he arrived in SA in 1893, it was also the sign of the times when all races were prejudiced against one another - the Indians looking at native Africans as less civilized than themselves and the whites looking at all dark races as genetically inferior in all aspects. However, to Gandhi's credit, over a span of twenty years he evolved to realize that the struggles of native Africans is no different from his own for the Indians and he came to empathize with their plight. For their part, the Africans had their prejudices about Indians as well. For example, the Zulu reformer John Dube remarks to a friend that while he had once thought the plantation coolies crude and uncivilized, now he had acquired a sense of respect for all Indians, looking at their indomitable spirit in rising against the unjust laws. The author also speculates that Mr. Pixley Seme, a young Zulu leader from Jo'burg, must have noticed on his visit to Gandhi's Tolstoy Farm that its residents included by ethnicity, Gujarathis, Tamils, North Indians and Europeans and by faith, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians - all managing to overcome distinctions of sect and tribe and present a united front to the rulers. This must have resulted in him publishing an article saying, "...the demons of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basutos and every other native must be buried and forgotten...we are one people. These divisions, jealousies are the cause of all our woes and our backwardness and ignorance today...".

The other charge that is laid at Gandhi's door of 'sainthood' is his 'awful' treatment of his wife and children. The author, though an admirer of Gandhi like me, is frank about Gandhi's shortcomings in this sphere. Gandhi was the traditional overbearing Hindu patriarch, making his wife and children do what he intended for them. It is doubly sad because Gandhi himself benefited immensely by the early death of his father in that he could chalk out his own path in life, by going to London to study Law and on return to India, moving to Bombay to seek a career as a lawyer. When he failed in that endeavour, he chose to leave for South Africa, all of which being possible because his father was not around to force him to stay in Porbander and do what he thought was best for him. Gandhi seemed to have reflected little on all this as he chalked out the paths for all his four children, much against their wishes. Indian Psychologists would perhaps say that Gandhi exhibited the classic 'Yayati complex' of Indian men in the way that he forced his children to follow his ideals and values and circumscribed their freedom completely. As for his wife, Kasturba, women in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were completely dominated by their husbands' needs and wishes and diktats and Gandhi was in no way different. Still, the presence of the feminist Millie Polak and Sonja Schlesin had its effect on Gandhi resulting in Kasturba and other Tamil women carrying out satyagrahas which resulted in Kasturba eventually spending three months in prison. This was a great leap for Indian womanhood in those times and it is significant that Gandhi did not forbid the women's activism outside the home.

Gandhi's life inspires extreme emotions both in his admirers and enemies. His detractors -The Left in India, the Hindu nationalists, sections of Dalits and sections of non-Indians - see him as a cunning politician, a quirky Luddite, a hypocrite or one who betrayed the majority Hindus in India. His avid admirers like Hermann Kallenbach see him as saintly and a mahatma and as one who appears once in a century or so. As for me, I fall in between. I admire Gandhi for his far-sightedness on the importance of non-violence and passive resistance methods and his vision of Hindu-Muslim unity in India, but not so much for his anti-industrialism, insistence on celibacy, naturopathy, religiosity etc. Depending on where one stands on Gandhi, this book will impact them accordingly. I thought it is a superb contribution to the life of the Mahatma.
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on April 21, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
By his own account, for Gandhi Before India Ramachandra Guha was able to consult quite a bit of Gandhi's correspondence that had not been included in the compendium of "all" his correspondence. I have no reason to doubt that. His research appears impeccable.

Guha sees Gandhi as a person with flaws as well as virtues. He presents to us a real person in the process of growth. This is also a big plus for this book.

Given that it presents a lot with which I am not familiar both about one of India's subcultures and about Gandhi, himself, the book is surprisingly quite readable.

Overall, I can only say that this book is an impressive achievement which makes me interested to read more by this author!
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on October 19, 2014
As a long time fan of the writer and having picked up this book in Berkeley, I was pleased to read that the book was born in Ram Guha's mind when teaching a course on Gandhi at Berkeley in 1998. The title of this book is not just a play on words after his famous book India After Gandhi, it truly is 550 pages of the largely unknown story of Gandhi starting at birth (1869) and before returning to India after 20 years in South Africa (1894-1914).

With a rigor that only Ram Guha is capable of, he arduously reconstructs the story of Gandhi's first 45 years from contemporary records of his years in Porbandar, Rajkot, Bombay, London, Durban and Johannesburg. While earlier works are a collection of writings by Gandhi or secondary works thereof, this book also referred letters written by others to Gandhi, papers of Gandhi's friends and associates in South Africa, records of governments of India, South Africa and England, and archived newspapers and publications of the time. It is a miracle that all these sources were stitched so perfectly in chronology and diligently edited to re-create a deeply personal story spanning his early childhood, relationship with his parents, relationship with Muslim friends from school and then abroad, relationships with his wife and children, relationships with Christians, Jews and Parsis in his life in London and South Africa, besides Hindus from different states, speaking different languages and from different socio-economic conditions. For a pious Indian bania, his work with women was far ahead of his time as well.

As an upper-caste Hindu male in the 19th century, you can see his world view shift after finding himself among an oppressed minority in South Africa, discovering the power of his moral character and values, evolving into a leader of the Asiatics (including Chinese), while inspiring white South Africans alike, successfully experimenting with the ideas of passive resistance and satyagraha in the face of strong colonial leadership, before returning to India as "Mahatma" and contributing to the freedom struggle in a decisive way with the same ideas. As an Indian, especially as an immigrant, I could relate to the power of these foundation years - more than half his life - in shaping a personality that we know to be the legend who is practically immortal with what he stands for. Some of the most unknown stories of one of the most popular men on the planet. You must read it and get inspired with ideas that remain as relevant as ever in the 21st century.
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on July 7, 2014
What an interesting title. It's the "before" that at once catches the eye. While India and Gandhi are inextricably linked, this book derives its principal interest from how South Africa prepared Gandhi for his future role. As Jon Stewart remarked right away when he introduced author Ramachandra Guha on his show, Gandhi is truly a "global" figure in the highest sense of the phrase even in this era of mass celebrities where he stands taller than pretty much everyone else to date. Indeed, whatever may be the future of humanity, and, however and whoever writes it, Gandhi will always be an essential player in that account. In simple, clear, enthusiastic prose Guha charts the evolution of Gandhi from a modest young lawyer with unremarkable speaking skills, one who had yet to find his real métier, to someone who became self-charged with a mission of fighting injustice in his own unique and now immediately, famously, recognizable way. In time to come, he was able to hold the attention of millions when he spoke. From what I gather reading this book, in the second half of the nineteenth century, racism in South Africa was raw and unspeakably vile. How on earth a shy young man coming from a subcontinent away, ostensibly to practice law on behalf of a small Indian community in its diaspora, stepped up to a huge challenge involving the very foundations of justice as applicable to all (if it is to be just) while still maintaining decency, dignity, kindliness vis-a-vis the aggressive Boers and British is nothing short of revolutionary - in the best sense of that word. The thing is Guha (if I understand correctly) suggests that nothing in Gandhi's background probably predisposed him naturally to fight the battles that he met/chose. As the book points out, the "trader caste" from which Gandhi originated were just the kind of folks who abhorred rocking the boat. Profits rather than a desire for justice probably controlled their raison d'être. Guha's challenge is to show how from such a conservative seed bed arose this innovative "warrior" of the spirit and I believe this book does that very well. One critical facet that emerges from the book is that Gandhi possessed not only an abundance of "moral"/ethical courage but, surprisingly, a great deal of "physical" courage as well despite his apparent lack of physical prowess. Thus it is that Gandhi will always stand for me as the perfect antidote to the biggest bullies of his age. In researching source materials for this book, Guha took advantage of newly arrived access to archives from post-apartheid South Africa. That was a great move on his part. I leave with the perception that the greatest of persons are not necessarily born that way. Like the rest of us they too have to swim against the current to make something of themselves. But unlike most of us, time and circumstance evoke an amazing, out of scale, and yet benevolent response from them. Read, you have nothing to lose and much to admire!
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VINE VOICEon April 17, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
With tomes of dissertations and books written on Gandhi, it is always difficult to come up with a new lens to rediscover the personality that shaped much of the strategies in modern world's political movements. Most authors adopt an approach to explain how Gandhi influenced India (the world, in general). and focus less on how the world shaped Gandhi. Guha does a masterful job in a blended approach of employing Gandhi both as a protagonist and a mere witness to prevalent social-economic-political-religious circumstances. In that nuanced approach, Guha is able to discover the unique roles non-Indians have played in the early shaping of Gandhi's philosophies, moral compass, and the urge to fight injustice within the system.

Some narratives (especially the ones I read growing up in India) tend to portray Westerners as mostly of the same ilk as the infamous General Dyre. But the narrative around Gandhi in England for studies portray an entirely different picture; almost to the extent that one could argue England really didn't know what the English were doing once they were out of England - the general tolerance and often camaraderie (as in vegetarian society, for example) that Gandhi experienced in his college days is in stark contrast to how the English raj was perceived. That contrast is educational, a reader also is able to witness the gradual degeneration of the "benevolence" of the English rulers in all colonies. The social tensions within these colonies, the debate on immigrants (and Indians' role in shaping that discourse via non-violent ways), and the general apathy that was shown towards immigrants and other races in South Africa is a story that is often unsaid in the context of Gandhi. Those sections alone are worth this book.

Perhaps the best chapter that crystallizes the transformation that Gandhi went through, as a result of his numerous moves between India and South Africa (not flatteringly, more moves were associated with professional growth than a compelling sense of principles, often at a significant cost to his family) is "from conciliation to confrontation". Religious, racial undertones to a legal battle in Natal really captures the thought process of Gandhi - as a political strategist.

In some sense, the biggest contribution of Guha, in this account, is the portrayal of Gandhi as a political strategist (primarily) as opposed to a moral leader which is typically the narrative most biographers have chosen to do. In addition, the detailed discussions on the South African colonies provide an extremely detailed and insightful analysis on how these events gradually shaped Gandhi's views (as opposed to the dramatic narrative involving throwing Gandhi from a train...).

While often times dry (due to the attention to detail) and difficult to digest the jumps in narrative settings (Gandhi was obviously a great packer-mover, it seems), Guha does an excellent job in educating the social-political-racial circumstances that shaped one of the most influential political strategists. An excellent read.
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on August 9, 2014
Ramachandra Guha has uncovered a myriad of previously untapped documents, including: private papers of Gandhi's contemporaries and co-workers; contemporary newspapers and court documents; the writings of Gandhi's children; secret files kept by British Empire functionaries. Using this wealth of material in a brilliantly nuanced narrative, Guha describes the social, political and personal worlds in which Gandhi began his journey to become the modern era's most important and influential political actor. And Guha makes clear that Gandhi's work in South Africa--far from being a mere prelude to his accomplishments in India--was profoundly influential on his evolution as a political thinker, social reformer and beloved leader.

PS I can hardly wait for Book two by Ramchandra Guha
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on June 26, 2014
Perhaps a little too detailed and anecdotal for my taste, but certainly turns a bright illuminating light on the South African racial environment during late 19th and early 20th century. Gandhi's own deeply-felt, racist attitude towards South African blacks should have been subjected to more scrutiny. And why does Guha completely ignores Gandhi's alleged homosexuality? But otherwise a great read for those interested in the evolution of this great man's political tactics for attacking anti-Indian racism and colonialism.
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on July 20, 2014
We are generally more familiar with Gandhi's efforts to free India from British rule in the early 1900's. This book covers his early life and, mostly, his time in South Africa. I was not familiar at all with the 20 years he spent in South Africa. He organized efforts to assist Indians and other Asians living there to be accepted and respected as fellow humans with rights. The book is well-documented and, to be honest, a bit long, portraying this portion of Gandhi's life (roughly 1893-1913). It shows the development of passive resistance and the growth of Gandhi from lawyer to civil servant. Without his experience in South Africa, he would not have been as likely to be successful in India. The book discusses his strong religious beliefs, vegetarian beliefs, folk medicine, along with his political and social efforts.
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on May 31, 2014
Gandhi came of age in South Africa as a lawyer defending Indians there and confronted the racism, codified in their laws. His tactics developed by trial and error where he learned not to resist evil, turned into a powerful weapon, in his hands. Tolstoy was a major influence in his development and they did correspond. This bio fleshes out his many friends that helped and worshiped him. By the Time he left South Africa and returned to India he was already a demigod and he played that role well. This story ends with his leaving South Africa, but it is clear that there will be hell to pay from England's point of view. I can't wait to read the sequel and how they will lose India, as well they should have. I learned so much from this book and you will too.
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on December 5, 2014
Given what has happened during the last few weeks in Ferguson, Missouri and Long Island, New York plus the refusal of The U.S. House of Representatives to even consider Immigration Reform Legislation proposed by our President two years ago, and the measures states like Texas have used to deprive minorities of their vote through the use of redistricting, mandatory voter ID cards, and limiting the hours when people may vote, this book is extremely timely.

The book concentrates on Gandhi's life in South Africa and his non-violent protest leadership against measures that deprived resident Indians of the right to vote, severely limited the number who were allowed to enter the country, imposed unaffordable taxes on their modest businesses, and broke up families by refusing to allow male Indian immigrants to bring their wives and children into the country with them. Does this all sound home-country familiar?

You bet. If anything, I believe this book is a serious reminder to U.S. Caucasians that as a race, we are extremely slow learners when it comes to treating people of color fairly, no matter what our U.S. Constitution says. We seem to take one step forward (school integration) and then several steps back (repealing Affirmative Action). Just as it was in South Africa during the early 1900's, the white desire to keep people of color in a subservient position where they are unlikely to flourish and are subject to great suffering seems to be based both on fear of those people in general and an unjustified sense of entitlement to a good life at the expense of others.

Gandhi's approach to achieving fair treatment of the Indians in South Africa who were supposed to be British Subjects at the time, was to stage non-violent protests which included peaceful marches, and refusals to pay selective taxes, or participate in yearly "registrations", or observe the rule that people of color were not allowed to ride in first class on trains even if they could afford it....only third class. Rosa Parks took up this issue in the U.S. with her historic refusal to move to the back of the bus.

Gandhi's fight for equal rights extended to the Chinese as well as the Indians in South Africa. His marches and close associates also included people from many religions. Hindus like him, Tamils, Muslims, Christians and Jews all worked together for a common cause. They all marched and served the jail time that was usually imposed for the civil disobedience. Late in his South African campaign several women began to work, march and go to jail with him. This was a brave and unusual thing for women to do in the early 1900's. Like their male participants, the women came from many different religious groups. That kind of blindness to and acceptance of differences that may exist between religious groups is sorely needed both in today's world and our own country.

Surprisingly, Gandhi seemed to ignore the largest group of color in South Africa at the time, the black South Africans. While the author mentions this, the reason is left unexplained. Perhaps he will provide one in Volume II which is to follow. Volume II will deal with Gandhi's efforts in his native India.

This is a scholarly book supported by exhaustive research of sources other than Gandhi's records and writings. While obviously very familiar with those, Professor Guha sates that he wanted to write a book based primarily on the recollections, records or writings of others and he has successfully done so. While I am looking forward to Volume II. I consider Volume I "must reading" for anyone who cares about fair treatment for all people, regardless of color, religion, country of origin and, in today's world, sexual orientation.
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