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Time Magazine has called Ram Guha ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’ and there is truth in the statement. While there are many social commentators, Ram Guha presents modern history in a manner that is not boring, erudite or archaic. All of it is backed with impeccable research.
Gandhi Before India is an interesting read of Gandhi’s years in South Africa. What most of us know is that Gandhi underwent a transformation when he was thrown out of a train car reserved for the whites; that is when he decided to come back to India and lead the fight for freedom. What we don’t know is that he went to Africa because he was unsuccessful as a lawyer in India.
Gandhi went to South Africa on the invitation of an Indian merchant to help resolve a legal dispute and got saved from a life of historical obscurity. Jailed in Johannesburg he got his first taste of struggle and sacrifice, and learnt the techniques of political activism . In that country, Gandhi formulated the pragmatic approach of non-violent protests and got a sense of his own power and charisma.
Indians in South Africa were upset that Gandhi left before making any significant change there, but a bigger platform awaited Gandhi – India was disenchanted with British Rule, and the clamour for self-rule and freedom were beginning to find expression.
There are little gems in the book – Gandhi liked to twist the ears of dogs in his hometown , he was in touch with Jinnah atleast a decade before it became known and the blacks in South Africa remained invisible in his life. Irrespective of the social milieu then, I thought it was pretty regressive for a man of Gandhi’s stature.
The last chapter “How the Mahatma was Made” could well have been an alternate title for this book. Despite all the research, Guha sticks to the authorised conservative version of Gandhi, including his celibacy. When there is a doubt, Gandhi is given its benefit.
Guha’s Gandhi should not offend many, but he may surprise most.
A definite read.