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Gandhi Before India, by Ramachandra Guha, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 688 pages

Mohandas K Gandhi as quack doctor and self-styled expert on rheumatism and constipation; Gandhi as law student fleeing the attentions of his landlady in Portsmouth, where he attended a “vegetarian conference” with English friends; Gandhi as a father, neglectful of his sons, and as a husband, abstaining from sex. The portrait offered in historian Ramachandra Guha’s biography is of Gandhi as a human being, not just a hero.

It is well known that Gandhi spent time in South Africa and was thrown out of a first-class train carriage at Pietermaritzburg because of his skin colour. What is less understood is how Gandhi’s early stay in London and his work in South Africa from 1892 to 1914, fighting for the rights of Indian traders (and, ultimately, indentured labourers), moulded him into the campaigner who would lead India to independence.

Guha’s biography fills this gap with authority and clarity. Gandhi Before India – the title is a play on the author’s post-independence history India After Gandhi (2007) – is to be followed by at least one more volume covering the rest of the subject’s life.

Ironically, it was early 20th-century South Africa, where racial barriers were more rigorously enforced by whites than they were in London or even in the British Raj, that threw the young Gandhi together with Indians of different races, religions and social classes, as well as with white Jews and Christians, members of the Chinese community, and independent-minded western women.

Partly through the astonished account of Gandhi’s nephew Chhaganlal, Guha describes the multiracial household that Gandhi and his wife Kasturba shared with the Jewish writer Henry Polak and his wife Millie Graham in Johannesburg: “Chhagan was puzzled and confused by what he saw – the white lady secretary in his uncle’s office, the jokes and the banter and the displays of physical affection (between Henry and Millie) in his uncle’s home, the eating at the same table of Hindus, Muslims and Europeans. To his conventional Bania eyes, the household was eccentric. To the conventional white Christian in Johannesburg, the household was positively heretical.”

So it was that Gandhi, a small-town Gujarati Hindu of the Bania caste, escaped the bonds of family, caste, class and religion and, inspired by everything from Tolstoy’s rural idealism to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, began to develop his passionate beliefs in religious tolerance and the need to acquire rights and freedoms through passive resistance or satyagraha. By the time he left South Africa, after being repeatedly jailed and sometimes beaten, Gandhi had negotiated repeatedly with British colonial authorities – including a notably racist Winston Churchill, and with the South African Jan Smuts – and ranked among the most important non-white political leaders in the country.

While Gandhi was influenced by South Africa, the reverse was also true. His campaigns for Indian rights in Natal and the Transvaal played a part in South Africa’s long and difficult path through apartheid to full democracy.

Guha is almost apologetic about how slow Gandhi was to recognise the rights of the majority population of black Africans but there are glimpses of the importance of the example set by Gandhi and his followers – in the burning of registration certificates or passes for instance – in the African struggles against apartheid that followed.

Among those who admired his work was John Dube, the Zulu reformer and first president of the South African Native National Congress, forerunner of the African National Congress. Pixley Seme, the lawyer who promoted the idea of the congress, visited Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg and, like Gandhi among Indians, sought to unify Africans of all tribes.

For India, however, the Gandhi story had barely begun by the time this book ends. Guha reveals that it was not the poet Rabindranath Tagore but Pranjivan Mehta – the Rangoon jeweller who helped finance Gandhi’s work – who in 1909 first used the term Mahatma (“great soul”). The tribute came in a letter to the nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale in which Mehta praised Gandhi’s personal asceticism and the institutions he had established in South Africa.

Five years later, Mehta’s wish for Gandhi to return to India came true. A man able to unite Hindus and Muslims and to campaign relentlessly but peacefully for the rights of Indians was on his way back to his homeland to fulfil his destiny.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s South Asia bureau chief

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