The first in a two-volume biography of Gandhi (1869–1948) by a seasoned Indian scholar distinguishes itself from legions of others by its clarity and many facets.
Guha (India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, 2007, etc.) relishes Gandhi’s inconsistencies (“Sometimes he behaved like an unworldly saint, at other times like a consummate politician”) and has evidently delved beyond his collected works for material—e.g., unexplored letters to colleagues, children and even his enemies. Spanning his subject’s early era, the author moves from Gandhi’s rather middling upbringing in the merchant caste of Kathiawar in the western Indian state of Gujarat, the youngest son of a polygamous civil-servant father and a pious, vegetarian mother. He then examines Gandhi’s revelatory law apprenticeship in London, the attempts at establishing himself as a barrister in Bombay, and the discovery of his livelihood and life’s calling defending Indians and Muslims against discriminatory policies in the Transvaal, South Africa. Being a vegetarian law student in London brought the young Gandhi into the eclectic circle of the London Vegetarian Society, influenced by the work of Henry Salt. Gandhi also befriended numerous people of different religions and backgrounds, cultivating the kinds of rich friendships across class, ethnic and gender lines that defined his evolving work as a social reformer. Married as a teenager, he was always aware of having to provide for his family and educate his sons, a duty that spurred him initially to ply his trade as a journeyman lawyer in Durban. Establishing the newspaper Indian Opinion in 1903, he wrote copiously, developing his ideas on diet, moral economy and passive resistance. Upon reading John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi moved the newspaper out to Phoenix, outside of Durban, in the first experiment in utopian self-sufficiency.
Guha offers a full, relaxed portrait of how the “Mahatma” came to be, as he gained his voice as a writer, seeker and leader.