Mohandas Gandhi photographed in 1901
Mohandas Gandhi photographed in 1901, with his secretary Sonja Schlesin to the right, Henry Polak to the left, and two clerks standing behind © Alamy

I was given my first tutorials in the craft of biography some 20 years ago. My teacher was the great Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle, then a colleague at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. At the time, I was working on a life of anthropologist Verrier Elwin (1902-64), an Oxford scholar and renegade priest who had made his home among the tribal people of Central India. It was my first biographical project, and I was naturally keen to seek the counsel of a master of the genre.

While studying Elwin’s life, I had visited archives scattered across India and the United Kingdom. I had done masses of primary research, and even prepared a first full draft of the manuscript. I brought this to Berlin, where, several months into our stay, Boyle consented to read it. Two weeks later the manuscript was returned to my pigeonhole, the reader’s disenchantment with my method and my prose manifest in the pencilled comments that scarred every page.

Boyle’s necessary harshness on paper was, however, softened in person. In walks through the Grunewald, he gently handed me some elementary lessons. Boyle’s First Law of Biography was: “Never Anticipate!” Elwin was in early youth a fervent (not to say bigoted) Evangelical, later an Anglo-Catholic, and finally a Buddhist. He was a committed celibate who came to celebrate the joys and mysteries of sex. In my draft, I had apologised for the eccentricities of Elwin’s early beliefs, indicating that he would finally arrive at positions more acceptable to the modern mind. Boyle pointed out that I had thus rendered the narrative anachronistic, while simultaneously robbing it of the crucial element of surprise.

Boyle’s Second Law of Biography I shall summarise as: “A Life is Only as Good as the Portrayal of its Secondary Characters”. My own draft paid insufficient attention to Elwin’s friends, associates, family and rivals. Yet these were fascinating in their own right, such as his companion Shamrao Hivale (who ran the rural schools they had established, leaving Elwin free to roam, and write), his first wife Kosi (an independent-minded tribal woman much younger than him), and Bombay sociologist GS Ghurye, who was obsessively jealous of the literary fluency and greater popularity of his English-born rival.

At Boyle’s prompting, I made these characters more central to my biography, which was finally published in 1999. My work since has led me to formulate a third maxim – and, since it is really an extension of the second, I would like to name this after my tutor as well. Boyle’s Third Law of Biography is as follows: “The Biographer Must Zealously Look for Sources Other than Those that Originate from His Subject”.

This Third Law forms the point of departure for my current project, a two-volume life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. A key source for all Gandhi scholars are the 97 volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Most of those with shelf space can afford the set, since it retails for Rs5,000, less than $90; otherwise it can be read online. The easy availability of the CWMG (to use its common abbreviation) has led to a proliferation of excellent specialist studies that carefully track the evolution of Gandhi’s views on caste, non-violence, religious pluralism and myriad other subjects.

While facilitating these thematic studies, the CWMG has unfortunately become an impediment to serious biographical analysis. Since all Gandhi said is now accessible at the click of a mouse, recent lives of the man have relied largely – and sometimes exclusively – on his own (admittedly massive) oeuvre.

The CWMG does not reproduce letters to Gandhi. Much of this incoming correspondence rests in cupboards in the library of his old ashram in Ahmedabad. Other letters to or about Gandhi are scattered in archives around the world – in Delhi and Bombay, in Oxford and London, in Johannesburg and Pretoria, in New York and Washington. I even found a significant collection of original Gandhi materials in private hands in the Israeli port of Haifa. Then there are the records of the British empire, whose excellent intelligence-gathering skills were extensively exploited throughout its 50-year obsession with this Enemy of the Raj. Newspapers, too, followed Gandhi’s activities minutely, which they wrote about in a variety of registers – appreciation, exasperation, wonder, disgust.

Following Boyle’s Third Law also allows one to more fully honour his second. After Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa in 1915, he soon attracted a band of devoted followers, who helped him convert the urban-centred, middle-class-dominated Indian National Congress into a genuine mass movement. These followers – among them Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya – are well-known. By comparison, the secondary characters of Gandhi’s South African years are largely forgotten. This period is rarely treated with much seriousness, being seen merely as a prelude to the great freedom struggle that followed. Yet in truth, his years in London and South Africa were absolutely formative, in both a personal and professional sense.

Gandhi had originally hoped to establish himself as a lawyer in the Bombay High Court. He failed, and could not get much work in his home town of Rajkot either. In May 1893, he travelled to South Africa to settle a dispute between two Gujarati merchants. Intending to return home once this dispute was settled, he stayed on for two decades.

Soon, Gandhi established a successful practice, representing indentured labourers, hotel waiters, street hawkers and prosperous merchants. From such work he would be drawn into racial politics, becoming the main mediator between the community and the Natal and Transvaal governments. Between 1906 and 1909, and again in 1913, he led major protests against racial laws that sought to restrict Indian immigration and deny Indians already in South Africa the right to own property, the freedom to move between provinces, the right to marry according to their own religious traditions. Gandhi himself spent four spells in jail, encouraging several thousand other Indians likewise to court arrest.

The city that really shaped Gandhi was Johannesburg, where he lived between 1903 and 1913. Following the end of the Anglo-Boer war, the gold-rich Transvaal was attracting immigrants from all over the world. Marauders and exploiters came to Johannesburg in search of wealth, eccentrics and free-spirits to escape convention or ostracism at home.

One of these dissenters was Henry Polak, a Jewish journalist sent out from London by his family in a vain attempt to thwart his relationship with a Christian socialist named Millie Graham. Gandhi first met Polak in a vegetarian restaurant; later, after Graham also came out, the couple were married with the Indian lawyer as a witness. The Gandhis and the Polaks shared a home, where fierce arguments raged about diet, religion, politics, and the respective merits of radicalism and meliorism. Another strong influence was Sonja Schlesin, his secretary. The Russian-Jewish Schlesin was an energetic feminist, who – like the Polaks – moved Gandhi away from his inherited social conservatism and patriarchy.

The Indian friends of Gandhi’s South African years were no less noteworthy. There was Durban merchant Parsi Rustomjee, who funded Gandhi’s early campaigns. There was Tamil militant Thambi Naidoo, who had come to Johannesburg via Mauritius. He set up as a cartage contractor, then abandoned his business to join Gandhi’s struggle. When the Gujarati merchants who had originally supported Gandhi backed out, Naidoo saved the movement by recruiting large numbers of Tamils to seek imprisonment instead.

Above all, there was Pranjivan Mehta, a fellow Gujarati whom Gandhi had met as a student in London. Trained in medicine as well as the law, Mehta then moved to Rangoon, where he ran a profitable jewellery business. Despite the ocean that separated them, Mehta remained Gandhi’s most intimate confidant. They wrote to each other regularly, visited each other in their diasporic locations, and spent the summer of 1909 together in London, where Mehta pressed his friend to return to India to assume charge of its nationalist movement.

Mehta was in many ways an Engels to Gandhi’s Marx – his closest friend, his financial backer, the person most confident of his greatness (he was the first to call Gandhi a “Mahatma”.) This remarkable man is not so much as mentioned in some recent Gandhi biographies. Other friends and associates of his South African years are likewise neglected (perhaps because what they said or did is not reproduced in the CWMG). Yet it was through encounters with the Polaks, Naidoo, Schlesin and Mehta that Gandhi developed the core elements of his philosophy. These men and women nudged him towards a commitment to interfaith harmony; towards recognising the social and linguistic diversity of India; towards thinking seriously about issues of caste and gender; and, most importantly, towards developing the theory and practice of non-violent resistance that remains his most enduring legacy.

There are, of course, aspects of the craft of biography that I have not discussed here. The biographer must pay attention to the wider historical context, try to write in non-jargonised prose, seek to source photographs rare and previously unused. Even so, the three maxims that Nicholas Boyle gave me years ago remain the often scorned yet absolutely indispensable aids to the writing of a biography that is credible as well as readable.

I live in Bangalore, but shall make sure that an early copy of Gandhi Before India reaches my tutor’s college in Cambridge. He is too scrupulous a scholar to mark up a printed book in pencil. But if he does read it, I will not be surprised, nor even displeased, if he then passes on fresh lessons, other laws. I shall have several years, and another volume, to implement them.

Ramachandra Guha’s ‘Gandhi Before India’ is published by Allen Lane on October 3

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