The diversity and depth of this new — or at least so far unused — material is explained in greater detail in ‘A Note on Sources’ at the end of this book. Drawing on this research, I plan to write two volumes of biography, in an attempt to create a fuller sense of Gandhi’s life, work and contexts. This, the first book, examines his upbringing in his native Gujarat, his two years as a student in London and, most intensively, his two decades as a lawyer, home-maker and community organizer in South Africa. The second book will cover the period from our subject’s return to India in January 1915 to his death in January 1948. It will provide a social history of his political campaigns, of his reform movements and of everyday life in his ashram.
These studies of the African Gandhi and the Indian Gandhi each contain many different characters and stories. Some are charming, others tragic, yet others resonant with social or political meaning. The geo graphical breadth extends over Asia, Africa and Europe, and even, here and there, North America. The narrative flows from desert to mountain, from city to village, from river to sea. The historical breadth extends from the second half of the nineteenth century down to the present day.
In reading (and telling) these stories we meet Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, and even the odd atheist. Many characters come from the labouring classes — they include farmers, crafts- people, shopkeepers, housewives, scavengers and mineworkers. Others come from an elite background, being prosperous businessmen, powerful proconsuls, decorated generals and elected heads of state.
These diverse landscapes and human beings are given meaning by their relation to Mohandas K. Gandhi. It is his journey that we follow, from Gujarat to London to Natal and the Transvaal and then back to Gujarat, and on to a thousand places beyond. It is by tracing his steps and recalling his actions that we encounter these many landscapes and this range of remarkable people.
There are some striking resemblances between the central character in this story and his counterpart in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. The hero of that story, Lord Ram, also travels long distances, sometimes willingly, at other times unwillingly. He too spends long periods in exile, and has a loyal and very supportive wife, whom (like Gandhi) he does not always treat with the respect and understanding she deserves. He is also a man of high moral character, who occasionally entertains dark and dangerous thoughts. Both Gandhi and Ram have powerful adversaries, who are not without a certain appeal of their own. Both men could not have done what they did, one in myth and the other in reality, without the self-effacing support of very many others. And both have enjoyed a vigorous and contentious after-life.
But one should not push the parallels too far. The morals that the Ramayana seeks to establish are cultural and familial — how to deal with one’s wife, for example, or with one’s father or step-mother, or how to uphold the dharma of caste and community. In the case of our own epic, the morals are more explicitly social and political. We are asked to choose between rule by foreigners and self-rule, between violence and non-violence, between the aggressive proselytizing of one’s faith and the loving understanding of another, between a respect for natural systems and an arrogant disregard of them. Sometimes, pace the Ramayana, the ‘right’ choices may in fact involve a reversal of the traditional order, as in the abolition of Untouchability or the granting of equal rights to women.
That said, in both epics the morals are secondary. What really matters are the stories, the richness of the human experience they contain, the fascination of the central character and of those who worked with or fought against him.
The narrative of the current book begins with Gandhi’s birth, in October 1869, and ends with his departure from South Africa in July 1914. Much of this time was spent as a lawyer and activist in Natal and the Transvaal. Gandhi’s biographers have tended to skip hastily over this phase of his life, treating it as a prelude to his later, apparently more important, work in India. They have chosen to consider his life in teleological terms, with his work in South Africa preparing the way for his more important work in his homeland.
Haste and teleology — these twin temptations — do injustice to both man and place. As social reformer, popular leader, political thinker and family man, Gandhi was fundamentally shaped by his South African experience. In turn, he had a profound impact on the history of that continent, with his ideas and attitudes influencing later struggles against racism.
When Gandhi first landed in Durban in 1893, South Africa was very much a nation-in-the-making. Its separate colonies governed them- selves. Some, like Natal, were ruled by British expatriates; others, like the Transvaal, were ruled by Afrikaners of largely Dutch descent (then known as ‘Boers’). In the only part of Africa with a European climate, the colonists set about creating a homeland for themselves. There were, of course, very many Africans who had lived there from long before the white man arrived. But through a series of wars and conquests they were being thoroughly subjugated.
Between the dominant Europeans and the subordinated Africans lay the Indians. They had come in as labourers, imported to work in the mines and sugar plantations, and on the railways. There were also a significant number of Indian traders, and a few professionals. By the time of Gandhi’s arrival there were about 50,000 Indians in this part of the world, a majority of them in Natal.
Gandhi lived for long periods in both Natal and the Transvaal — roughly a decade in each. Natal was on the coast, dominated by the British, with an economy founded on sugar and coal. Transvaal was inland, ruled by the Boers, and going through a massive boom due to the discovery of gold. The material riches, relative underpopulation and glorious climate of both colonies was attracting settlers from Europe as well as Asia. Gujaratis, Tamils and Hindi-speakers came across the Indian Ocean; Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Theosophists via the Atlantic. These were all people in search of more — far more — material prosperity than they could ever find at home.