A Different Gandhi

Vithalbhai Jhaveri/GandhiServe
Gandhi in South Africa, recuperating from a severe beating by Pathans on the day he went to register under the ‘Black Act’ as an Indian living in the Transvaal, 1908; photograph by Joseph Doke, Gandhi’s first biographer

Even in his lifetime the legend of Mahatma Gandhi had grown to such proportions that the man himself can be said to have disappeared as if into a dust storm. Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography sets out to find him. His subtitle alerts us that this is not a conventional biography in that he does not repeat the well-documented story of Gandhi’s struggle for India but rather his struggle with India, the country that exasperated, infuriated, and dismayed him, notwithstanding his love for it.

At the outset Lelyveld dispenses with the conventions of biography, leaving out Gandhi’s childhood and student years, a decision he made because he believed that the twenty-three-year-old law clerk who arrived in South Africa in 1893 had little in him of the man he was to become. Besides, his birth in a small town in Gujarat on the west coast of India, and childhood spent in the bosom of a very traditional family of the Modh bania (merchant) caste of Jains, then the three years in London studying law are dealt with in fine detail and with a disarming freshness and directness in Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Lelyveld’s argument is that it was South Africa that made him the visionary and leader of legend. He is not the first or only historian to have pointed out such a progression but he brings to it an intimate knowledge based on his years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in both South Africa and India and the exhaustive research he conducted with a rare and finely balanced sympathy.

Having accepted the brief of assisting as a translator in a civil suit between two Muslim merchants from India, Gandhi presented himself in a Durban magistrate’s court on May 23, 1893, just the day after his arrival, dressed in a stylish frock coat, striped trousers, and black turban, and was promptly ordered to remove the turban. He refused, left the courtroom, and fired off a letter to the press in protest. This was his first political act, predating the incident of being thrown off a train by an Englishman who objected to traveling with a “colored man” made famous by Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi and Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha. Remarkably for an Indian, this seems to have been his first encounter with colonial arrogance and in his autobiography he said it made him resolve to stay and “root out the disease” of “color prejudice.” It was the start of what Erik Erikson was to call his “eternal negative” but it is also a simplification, Lelyveld points out, of a much more convoluted…

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