What prompted historian Ramachandra Guha to write Gandhi Before India? It’s his personality that continues to appeal across generations, finds out Lakshmi Krupa who attended the launch of the book in the city

“Why Gandhi?” Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy asked author Ramachandra Guha at the launch of Gandhi Before India at the Landmark book store in Nungambakkam. Indeed, it was the question on everyone’s mind. Why did Guha, sociologist and historian, narrow his focus down to an individual with not just one but three volumes (Guha is to write two more books on Gandhi), and that too about someone who has been written about so much? “In all my writings, he shadowed me. From environmental history to cricket, he had an influence on a whole range of people and their ideologies,” said Guha in one of the finest conversations the city has seen during a book launch.

The session began with the professor asking incisive questions about the book as well as Gandhi, which had the audience hooked. Guha responded to each question, basing his answers on facts as well as placing them in a historical, social and political context, his sense of humour apparent.

While Guha envisioned an argumentative book on Gandhi, along with his own critique of the man, he discovered such a wealth of information about his subject’s early life that he decided to focus on these facts without too much embellishment. Guha is hopeful that while his next book will talk about Gandhi In India, the third one will offer him scope for criticism.

His new book talks about Gandhi’s early life; growing up in a baniya household, travelling to London and finally South Africa, where “he forged the philosophy and techniques that would undermine and ultimately destroy the British Empire”. “It talks about Gandhi and the Tamils in South Africa, assassination attempts on him and the hostility of the white press during those days among other things,” Guha said. From untouchability to Gandhi’s relationship with the Muslims, the conversation took interesting twists before arriving at a most intriguing section where Guha spoke about his “What ifs” about Gandhi’s life. From ‘what if Gandhi’s father hadn’t died’, to what if his “unscrupulous” brother hadn’t aided the prince of Porbandar in staging a theft (Gandhi would have become the Diwan of Porbandar). And for the final ‘what if’ based on Guha’s research brought to light the correspondence between Jinnah and Gandhi way back in 1897, which also proved that the two men had interacted much before what existing evidence indicates. “That same year, Gandhi was looking for another lawyer to help him in South Africa. What if the letters were regarding that? Would Jinnah and Gandhi have forged a legal partnership in South Africa?” Guha asked.

“What is it like to write a biography about a man who has already written what can be called a classic autobiography,” asked Venkatachalapathy. “An autobiography is a pre-emptive strike against a biographer,” said Guha as the audience laughed. When the floor was opened to the audience for questions, the knowledgeable Chennai gathering rose to the occasion. The questions ranged from one about Thillaiyadi Valliammai (a woman martyred in a South African satyagraha) to the African American response to Gandhi. When someone asked him about ahimsa and satyagraha, Guha made a studied distinction: “Satyagraha is political and tells those in power that ‘I will shame you by going to prison over and over again’, while ahimsa is a more personal and moral principle.” Before signing books and posing for pictures, the author listed a few of his favourite books on Gandhiji, including Louis Fischer’s biography.