From Mohandas To Mahatma

Patrick French reviews a new biography, Gandhi Before India, a portrait of the leader as a young man:

[Author Ramachandra Guha] invests much energy in trying to show that Gandhi never dish_gandhi had sex with anyone other than Mrs Gandhi. He certainly had weird, manipulative flirtations with young unmarried women – characterised here as “paternal” – and was the father from hell, refusing to let his sons be educated and forcing them to take vows of celibacy that they inevitably failed to keep. Gandhi’s belief was that everyone who followed him should give up meat, alcohol, smoking and sex, and take up fasting. Guha claims that concerns over his fixation on celibacy and refusal to consult his wife Kasturba about it are a western obsession, but this neglects the doubts many Indian colleagues such as Nehru had.

Zareer Masani observes that Guha “neither censors nor censures the budding Mahatma’s frequent megalomania and his increasingly autocratic and even brutal treatment of his own wife and children”:

He castigated his conventional Gujarati wife, Kasturba, for her caste prejudices and almost threw her out of the house for refusing to empty the chamber-pot of his low-caste Tamil clerk. She was not consulted when he added sexual abstinence — Brahmacharya — to his growing list of household rules and tried unsuccessfully to impose it on his sons as well. When Kasturba fell critically ill, Gandhi wrote explaining that he could not give up the political struggle to be with her, but cheerfully urged her not to feel guilty about pre-deceasing him if death should take her.  Released from prison, he was outraged to find the poor woman, now severely anaemic, being dosed with beef extract by her sensible Parsee doctor. Though warned that she might not survive the journey, he insisted on moving her in torrential rain back to his own Phoenix Colony, where he subjected her to a naturopathic regime of cold baths and a fruit diet. Miraculously, she survived and later earned his respect by courting imprisonment herself.

Meanwhile, The Economist praises the book’s investigation of Gandhi’s early influences in South Africa:

First, an assortment of progressive outsiders influenced Gandhi’s ideas and methods. He drew much from the feminists and activist vegetarians he met in Britain; in Johannesburg he learned from Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jew, and Leung Quinn, a Chinese activist; and he exchanged letters with Leo Tolstoy. All encouraged Gandhi’s unusual broad-mindedness, his belief in peaceful, incremental change and his readiness for self-sacrifice. That seems paradoxical. South Africa for most people was a place of deep inequality. Gandhi’s encounters with black Africans, the majority in South Africa, may have been minimal, but still he found strength in their struggle against white power. He enjoyed “a crucible of human togetherness” among many who were opposed to discrimination. And he shared homes, prison cells and long walks with like-minded, though mostly foreign, friends. That would have been impossible had he remained in India.

Second, and just as important, it was in South Africa that Gandhi developed his methods of peaceful agitation. He liked to use the word “Satyagraha”, loosely translated as “insistence on truth”, to mean civil disobedience. His South African campaigns led thousands of people to court harsh prison sentences, which surprised the authorities, who had dismissed Indian migrants as timid.

(Image of Gandhi in South Africa in 1909 via Wikimedia Commons)