The first volume of what may well be the definitive biography of Mohandas Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India covers the years from Gandhi’s birth in 1869 through his departure from South Africa in July, 1914.
Biographers have often treated Gandhi’s earlier life– especially his two decades working in South Africa–as a little more than a warm-up for leading the struggle for Indian independence. Guha gives this period serious and detailed attention, arguing that such attention is necessary if we are to understand both “how the Mahatma was made” and Gandhi’s critical role in South African history.
Even a reader who is familiar with Gandhi’s history will find new insights in Gandhi Before India. Guha not only draws on Gandhi’s own writings from and about this period, but also uses a wide range of contemporary sources, from Gandhi’s childhood school reports to secret files kept by South African officials. By focusing on contemporary records rather than retrospective accounts, he overturns some accepted “truths” and introduces new elements to a familiar story. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the side excursions that illuminate elements of Gandhi’s life: the British ranking Indian rulers, the history of vegetarianism in England, Johannesburg as a cultural and intellectual melting pot.
Gandhi Before India is a step-by-step account of how a previously uninspiring member of a Gujurati merchant caste transcended the conventions of his caste, class, religious and ethnic backgrounds to become one of the most important–and controversial–figures of the twentieth century. I recommend it highly.
A version of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.