More than six decades after his death, Gandhi’s life and legacy are discussed, and sometimes acted upon, in countries he barely even knew of. And he continues to loom large in the life of his native land. His ideas are praised as well as attacked; dismissed by some as dangerous or irrelevant, yet celebrated by others as the key to resolving the tension between Hindus and Muslims, low castes and high castes, humans and the natural environment.
Testimony to Gandhi’s global significance is provided by the books about him that roll off the world’s presses. These have been enabled by the publication by the Indian Government of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The series runs to a hundred volumes, a colossal effort of editing and collation that includes tens of thousands of letters, speeches, essays, editorials and interviews that can be reliably attributed to Gandhi.
Gandhi wrote well, and he wrote a great deal. From 1903 to 1914, and again from 1919 to 1948, he published weekly newspapers in Gujarati and in English. While his prose was demotic and direct in both languages, his Gujarati writings are more intimate, since he shared a moral and cultural universe with the reader. Because of the quantity of his prose, and perhaps its quality too, one might say that there was actually a fifth calling that Gandhi practised — that of editor and writer. This complemented and enhanced his other callings, with his views on politics and society (and much else) being articulated in periodicals owned or at least controlled by himself.
All (or almost all) of Gandhi’s writings are now available in his Collected Works. Priced at Rs 4,000, or about £50, the English edition has recently been put on a CD-ROM. The volumes are also available on multiple websites. They have been industriously mined by Gandhi’s biographers, and by those who have written studies of his religious thought, his economic thought, his philosophy of non-violence, his attitude towards women, and his views on drink, drugs and gambling.
As a consequence of the easy availability of the Collected Works, Gandhi’s ideas, campaigns, friendships and rivalries have come to be seen very largely — and sometimes exclusively — through the prism of his own writings. This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted. Sixty-five years after his death, the general public knows a good deal more about what Gandhi thought of the world, but virtually nothing at all of what the world thought of him.
A decade ago, after teaching that course in Berkeley, I decided I would write a many-sided portrait of Gandhi, which would explore his words and actions in the context of the words and actions of his family, friends, followers and adversaries. The Collected Works are indispensable, but they are only one source among many. So I began visiting archives that held the private papers of his contemporaries. I studied the papers of his major South African associates. I examined the letters to Gandhi and about Gandhi written by the many remarkable men and women who worked alongside him in the Indian freedom struggle. I examined the writings, published and unpublished, of Gandhi’s four children.
I also studied the perceptions of those who opposed Gandhi. The officials of the British Empire had superb intelligence-gathering skills, as well as a fifty-year-long interest in Gandhi. They were obsessed with him in South Africa, where he was a constant irritant in their flesh, and still more obsessed with him in India, where he led millions of his com- patriots in protest against the iniquities of British rule. In national and provincial archives in India, England and South Africa, I read the letters, telegrams, reports and dispatches whereby the functionaries of the Empire commented upon their most dangerous (not to say most distinguished) rebel.
Not all those who opposed Gandhi, of course, were British or Afrikaners. Many were Indians, and some, Indians of great distinction. These included two brilliant London-trained lawyers, the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the leader of the low castes, B. R. Ambedkar; as well as the writer Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize. These three are deservedly famous, but Gandhi had other major critics in India, as well as less well-known opponents of his work in South Africa. Their writings (published and unpublished) are vital to a fuller understanding of Gandhi’s thought and practice. What Gandhi said and did makes sense only when we know what he was responding to.
Another crucial set of sources are contemporary newspapers. The first reference to Mohandas K. Gandhi in print appears to be in the Kathiawar Times in 1888, reporting his imminent departure to study law in London. But it is from his time in South Africa, and his assumption of a public role, that we find Gandhi appearing regularly in the news, at first in decidedly local newspapers such as the Natal Mercury and the Johannesburg Star, and later in more international and important periodicals such as The Times of London and the New York Times.
I cannot claim to have read the press all through Gandhi’s long life. Still, I have consulted thousands of newspaper reports on the interest and controversy generated by his campaigns, both in South Africa and in India. Like the government intelligence reports, these present a day-to-day narrative of Gandhi, and like them again, they do so from all the places visited by a man always on the move. They give voice to people who are otherwise unknown: the peasants, workers, merchants and clerks who were powerfully affected by Gandhi, and whose views are captured in correspondents’ reports and letters to the editor.
Searching for materials on or about Gandhi that are not in the Collected Works, I consulted archives in five countries (in four continents). These travels and researches were principally conducted to find material that did not carry my subject’s name or signature. Yet I also found, to my pleasure and surprise, dozens of letters written by Gandhi himself that, for one reason or another, had not come to the attention of the compilers of the Collected Works.