Mohandas K. Gandhi was born and raised in India and is best known for his work there as a world-renowned social reformer, political thinker, religious pluralist and prophet. If his life had followed the traditional path for someone of his family and caste, he would have remained in India, served in a prominent position and been unknown to most of the world. But as the noted scholar Ramachandra Guha demonstrates in his eminently readable and exhaustively researched Gandhi Before India, the 20 years that Gandhi spent in South Africa before his return to his home country in 1914 were fundamental to his success.
It was in South Africa that Gandhi invented what he named “satyagraha” or the “force of truth in a good cause,” the techniques of mass civil disobedience in which those in authority are shamed by nonviolent protesters willing to suffer beatings and imprisonment to attain justice. As he was about to leave South Africa for good, Gandhi called satyagraha “perhaps the mightiest instrument on earth.”
Nothing in Gandhi’s life had prepared him for the intensity of racial prejudice in South Africa. He went there, for what he thought would be a short time, to represent a prominent businessman in a lawsuit. He won the case and was asked to stay longer to help defeat a bill that would keep Indians, who were coming to South Africa in increasing numbers, from registering to vote. In his autobiography, Gandhi writes: “Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” His biographer speculates that it may have had more to do with the actions of the ruling class of white men.
Guha’s research took him to archives around the world, where he found many previously unknown or unused documents, including private papers of Gandhi’s friends and co-workers. As a result, Gandhi Before India presents the most complete portrait we have of a very human Gandhi during this period. Perhaps most importantly, we learn that Gandhi had a real gift for friendship. His closest friends in South Africa were two Hindus, two Jews and two Christian clergymen. Each was courageous and impressive, no one more than Gandhi’s devoted Jewish secretary, Sonja Schlesin, a steadfast supporter of his work.
Guha takes us through the negotiations Gandhi conducted with government officials, and we see how skilled he was in this arena. A strategist of slow reform, he proceeded incrementally, protesting by stages, preparing himself and his followers systematically rather than spontaneously rushing into confrontation. It was only when petitions, letters and meetings with authorities had failed that he chose to demonstrate.
This is an engrossing look at a major figure of the 20th century during a pivotal period in the development of his influential philosophy.