Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Review : The Man before the Mahatma by Charles DiSalvio





In his introduction to “The Man Before the Mahatma, M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law”, Charles DiSalvio writes –

“The image the world has of Mohandas Gandhi is a stark one. Say the name ‘Gandhi’ and the listener invariably conjures up a vision of an elderly, unassuming, bald headed man. He peers at us through well worn wire-rimmed glasses.... he wears not manufactured clothing from England’s factories, but plain, white, homespun cotton from India’s fields – and a minimum of that too...... he is an ascetic man: he prays, he keeps silent, he fasts, he refrains from wine, meat and sexual relations.... (He has) a clear and unswerving devotion to the cause of Indian freedom and a view of life that sees the spiritual as the underpinning of the political.

There is, however, another Gandhi. ( A photo at the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad shows him) in a tie, a starched shirt and a three piece suit.... A younger Gandhi, with a full head of hair and a striking moustache... with 4 members of his staff, and (a plaque behind him reading) ‘M.K. Gandhi. Attorney’.

Despite his having studied and practiced law for 23 years (1888-1911), this is the Gandhi about whom the world knows little”

I couldn’t possibly have improved upon this introduction, which is why I have reproduced (almost) the entire paragraph, verbatim. How true is it that we know so little about the man we know as the father of our nation! The word Mahatma, in Sanskrit, means ‘Great soul’. And he was indeed a fitting recipient of the title. However, before he became a great soul, he was a human, just like you and me, with all the similar fears, frailties, doubts, and problems that we all face, day after day. However, the book is not as much about the Gandhi the man, as it is about Gandhi, the Attorney.

Charles DiSalvio is Professor of Law at West Virginia University, where he teaches one of the few courses on Civil Disobedience. Before I read this book, I was unaware even of the existence of such a course! Understandably, his interest focuses on how Gandhi the lawyer turned into Gandhi, the staunch advocate of Civil Disobedience.

The book takes off on September 29, 1888, the day when Gandhi arrived in England, to begin studying for the career chosen for him. DiSalvio gives us a brief biography of the young man before he set out from India, to set the scene, so to speak. He contains himself only to details which concern his journey – the aids and the obstacles – to becoming a barrister. He stays away from going into his personal life, setting the tone for the book, adhering strictly to the title, confining himself to tracing the growth of a barrister, then an attorney at law into a crusader for human rights, a champion of civil disobedience.

As can be expected from a professor, the book is full of details. DiSalvio’s research is extensive, and I would think the book covers almost every case Gandhi ever fought in the courts. That said, DiSalvio also proves himself to be a wonderful author, putting together all the legal details in a manner easy to read and understand, even for laypersons like me who find law and legal language extremely boring and convoluted. He takes us through Gandhi’s early years in the law, his fear of public speaking, his struggles in Bombay and Rajkot,  the first indications of his stubborn adherence to his personal values and ethics, or as he puts it “the first indication....that the world’s way was not his way”.

The book really picks up steam with Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa in May 1893. For most of us, the little we know of his life in South Africa is from the film ‘Gandhi’, where the scene of his being thrown out of the first class coach of the train is most evocative of the change from barrister to champion. However, through the book we learn so much more about his work as an attorney – his wins and his losses, and above all, the slow death of his faith in the efficacy of the law, which eventually leads to the birth of Satyagraha as a tool for change.

There is much to recommend the book for. To begin with, the author fills a huge gap in our understanding of Gandhiji. Today, we think of him always as Mahatma Gandhi, who taught us to stand up for our rights, to stand strong against oppression. He is treated almost like a superhero, or in Indian terms, a God-like figure, who, we believe could do no wrong. To read of him therefore as a struggling lawyer is a good change indeed, and, I believe an inspiration to the youth of today. There is so much more we can learn from the young Gandhi too – his adherence to his values and principles, in spite of all temptations, his determination to achieve success without taking the easy way out, and above all, to overcome any and all obstacles that might come in the way. This especially bears importance in the present day, when we believe that protest alone will bring in change. The book reiterates that protesting alone doesn’t work. Sacrifice and a strict adherence to truth and right are moot points, which are the factors that eventually bring about the change we desire.

If I have any complaints at all about the book, it has to do with the fact that the author only talks of Gandhi the attorney. We learn little of Gandhi’s personal life during the long years in South Africa. Of course, we have read more about that in Gandhiji’s autobiography, but a broader perspective would have helped reconcile the thoughts of the man and the attorney as they changed to become the Mahatma. 


P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India



4 comments :

  1. Replies
    1. Yes, Aarti! you shd def read! would love to hear what u think of it!

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  2. Anu, I have a gujarati book that describes the years he spent at south Africa in detail. I am not sure if the English translation is available, but if it is, I strongly recommend that you must read that book. Its titled dakshin Africa na satyagrah no itihas.
    Love,
    Sonal

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    Replies
    1. Sounds interesting, Sonal. I hadnt heard of this book. I have only read of Gandhiji's own writings on his life in SA.. reading of the development of thought towards satyagraha by a third person would be really interesting. will look out for a translation.

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