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Story of the evolution of a Bania into a Mahatma
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.