Surely the only constant in politics is change. That said, the pace of change seems to have accelerated in recent years, with unrest transforming the Middle East, rocking Venezuela, and injecting a giddily alarming unpredictability into Russia's sphere of influence.
If past truly is prologue, then the newly published Gandhi Before India should be required reading for the student of contemporary affairs. Within its covers, author and historian Ramachandra Guha tells the story of profound change wrought by a complicated clash of civilizations. But more interestingly, it's also the unexpected tale of a conversation between civilizations, embodied by the young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi, his allies and supporters, and the political opponents he battled as an Indian resident of British South Africa.
"Gandhi Before India" aims to deliver a fuller and more nuanced portrait of the man, and it succeeds by tracing him from his beginnings as a merchant caste child in Gujarat, through his legal education in Britain, his immigration to South Africa, and finally his steady transformation from activist lawyer to self-sacrificing warrior for the cause of equality.
The book is less a hagiography of its exceedingly-well celebrated subject than a searching account of the setbacks and insights that eventually made the man. Drawing upon contemporary sources whenever possible, Guha fills in a wealth of details. With its accounts of Gandhi's initial lack of regard for African natives and neglect (to the point of cruelty) of his own immediate family, the book will likely satisfy Gandhi detractors. (There certainly are some – see Arundhati Roy's recent outrage about Gandhi's defense of the Indian caste system.)
But the book largely paints a deep and profoundly sympathetic portrait of Gandhi as both strategist and front-line warrior for the cause of Indian immigrants to South Africa.
You get tastes of how deeply ingrained racism was to South African (and British, and Boer) culture throughout the book, such as this 1895 clipping from the popular press:
"....a [black African-dominated] Ministry would be infinitely more preferable than an Indian. The native is a gentleman compared to him. He is manly, brave, and straightforward, while the Indian is otherwise."
Gandhi's reputation for personal courage is established over the course of his fight for civil rights in South Africa: his nonchalant assessment of his own many arrests, stints in jail, beating at the hands of a mob, and other misfortunes foreshadows his steely commitment to the cause of Indian self-rule.
Guha quotes a letter Gandhi wrote to a nephew in 1914 about a murder plot, and it helps to illuminate the caliber of person he had become over the course of his South Africa struggle:
"'They are plotting again in Johannesburg to take my life. That would indeed be welcome and a fit end to my work.' In case he was killed, Gandhi left instructions on what his family must do. They should live like farmers on the land, simply."
But as remarkable as it is to watch Gandhi's transformation from soft-spoken pragmatist to leader of his people, it's more remarkable to trace the many intimate friendships and alliances that he built: with other Indian ethnic groups in South Africa, but also with progressive Jews, with Chinese civil rights leaders, with British vegetarians, and even with one of his literary and philosophical idols, Leo Tolstoy.
Guha's carefully rendered observations about class, religion, and ethnicity – how they divide people and how they can be bridged by common concerns and simple decency – are the heart of this book. It's difficult not to marvel at Gandhi's ability to knit together seemingly alien groups that share little more than a common humanity.
This book should be of much interest to anyone watching (or participating) in the modern, social media-driven protest movements that sweep across the global landscape like summer thunderstorms. In contrast to those spasms of passion – which sometimes lead to government crackdowns, sometimes to an unsteady and hastily erected democracy, and sometimes to civil war – Gandhi's campaign feels slow, careful, and directed with patient precision. It's the difference between building a Chinese skyscraper in a matter of weeks and building the Great Wall over the course of generations.
The profound and public commitment by Gandhi and his allies to the means of peaceful defiance, as well as to the ends of a more equitable and just society, shine through the pages of "Gandhi Before India." That those means were difficult to uphold when threatened both by mobs and hostile members of government and the police made their upholding that much more significant, a lesson taken to heart in later eras by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Guha's detail-rich, patiently chronological exploration of Gandhi and his world is not suited to the casual reader. But a reader with a thirst for social justice and a curiosity about how mass movements are born from both individual courage and communal commitment will gain much from the author's accomplishment.
James Norton is a Monitor contributor.