Mahatma Abroad

Young Mahatma Gandhi PortraitBernard Porter at Literary Review:

Gandhi's years in South Africa were the making of him and could be said to mark the beginning of the unmaking of the British Empire. Ramachandra Guha's fine new book examining this time is the first of two projected volumes that will eventually cover the whole of the Mahatma's life. Usually this period is treated by biographers simply, and relatively sketchily, as a prelude to the much more important events that happened after his return to India in 1914. Guha thinks this does 'injustice to both man and place'. If he had been killed then, rather than in 1948, he would still have left a huge mark. Gandhi himself, when informed of an assassination plot against him in Johannesburg in March 1914, told a nephew that, if it succeeded, it would 'be welcome and a fit end to my work'.

We forget how celebrated he already was, in India and Britain as well as in South Africa, before the great events of the 1920s and 1930s. He was in South Africa for twenty years, after all. That was time enough not only for some great achievements on behalf of 'Asiatics' living and working there, but also for him to hone his broader ideas and strategies into the distinctive forms we are familiar with from his later career. Guha ends this book with some speculation ('counter-factual history') on what difference it might have made if he had never gone abroad. (If his father had still been alive, he probably wouldn't have done.) There can be no doubt that the experience was crucial – to him and, consequently, the world.

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