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 Before the loincloth: Gandhi in 1909

Did you know that the Mahatma who led India to independence in a loincloth used to dress elegantly in a top-hat and tailcoat as a young trainee barrister in London, but wore no underwear to save money on laundry? That's the sort of unexpected detail you can expect to find in Ramachandra Guha's exhaustive, 688-page chronicle of the first half of Gandhi's life.

Of all the world's leaders and thinkers, Gandhi has probably attracted the largest volume of biographical writing. It all began in the 1950s with the monumental eight-volume official biography by Tendulkar, followed by the brilliant and very concise Life of Gandhi by the American academic Louis Fischer, who had the advantage of interviewing him in his lifetime.

Many others have trodden the path since then, drawing on the huge corpus of Gandhi's own memoirs, letters, articles and speeches, which fill 98 volumes of published Collected Works. The key enigma which both attracts and defies his biographers is how a Christ-like ascetic, so obsessed with the rejection of all that is worldly and material, could so successfully capture and wield enormous political power over a subcontinent as diverse as India.

Past biographies have ranged from reverential eulogies to the iconoclasm of a new generation of Western historians, who have tried to demystify the Mahatma, revealing him as a wily and manipulative politician with a penchant for dubious sexual experimentation with young virgins. Ram Guha enters this biographical minefield with the avowed aim of presenting a more holistic portrait than his predecessors, relying less on Gandhi's own autobiographical writings and more on previously neglected press records and the narratives of people around him.

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Stephen McGibbon
October 28th, 2013
1:10 PM
I think Guha has ignored how Gandhi’s thinking on passive resistance grew from the writing of Shelley and Thoreau. Gandhi admired both. He often quoted Shelley's "The Masque of Anarchy"; written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819):- 'And if then the tyrants dare Let them ride among you there, Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, - What they like, that let them do. 'With folded arms and steady eyes, And little fear, and less surprise, Look upon them as they slay Till their rage has died away. 'Then they will return with shame To the place from which they came, And the blood thus shed will speak In hot blushes on their cheek. 'Every woman in the land Will point at them as they stand - They will hardly dare to greet Their acquaintance in the street. 'And the bold, true warriors Who have hugged Danger in wars Will turn to those who would be free, Ashamed of such base company. 'And that slaughter to the Nation Shall steam up like inspiration, Eloquent, oracular; A volcano heard afar. 'And these words shall then become Like Oppression's thundered doom Ringing through each heart and brain, Heard again - again - again - 'Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number - Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you - Ye are many - they are few.' Shelley’s poem influenced Henry David Thoreau's 1840 essay "Civil Disobedience" in which he writes of "peaceable revolution". Gandhi said of Thoreau, "Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable."

S McGibbon
October 25th, 2013
11:10 PM
"Guha credits Gandhi with inventing passive resistance" .. Not so, Guha hasn't read that widely then. Gandhi admired Shelley's "The Masque of Anarchy", written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819) 'And if then the tyrants dare Let them ride among you there, Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, - What they like, that let them do. 'With folded arms and steady eyes, And little fear, and less surprise, Look upon them as they slay Till their rage has died away. 'Then they will return with shame To the place from which they came, And the blood thus shed will speak In hot blushes on their cheek. 'Every woman in the land Will point at them as they stand - They will hardly dare to greet Their acquaintance in the street. 'And the bold, true warriors Who have hugged Danger in wars Will turn to those who would be free, Ashamed of such base company. 'And that slaughter to the Nation Shall steam up like inspiration, Eloquent, oracular; A volcano heard afar. 'And these words shall then become Like Oppression's thundered doom Ringing through each heart and brain, Heard again - again - again - 'Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number - Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you - Ye are many - they are few.' And Henry David Thoreau's 1840 essay "Civil Disobedience" speaks of "peaceable revolution". Gandhi was an admirer of Thoreau, saying "Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself. ... He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable."

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