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Readymade Ramayana


Faisal Devji

GANDHI BEFORE INDIA
By Ramchandra Guha
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2013, pp. 673, Rs. 899.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 2 February 2014

In the prologue to his account of Gandhi’s early career in England and South Africa, Ramachandra Guha declares, ‘There are some striking resemblances between the central character of this story and his counterpart in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana.’ These resemblances are said to comprise the themes of travel, exile, struggle and even marital mistreatment, all of which the Mahatma is meant to have shared with Rama. What goes unremarked is the implied similarity between the Ramayana and Gandhi Before India. Indeed Guha explicitly compares his telling of Gandhi’s life with the Ramayana, writing that, ‘In the case of our own epic, the morals are more explicitly social and political.’ But apart from its relative length, what does this modern biography share with the ancient epic? This question is not trivial, as the central problem of Guha’s book seems to be that of inserting Gandhi within a pre-constructed epic narrative, in which I will argue he falls strangely short of heroism.   One of the things an epic does is to retell a familiar story by adding new details, ideas and interpretations. Starting with the well-known narrative of Gandhi’s early life, then, Guha adds many such details, but these tend to be of such minor import that it seems peculiar to announce them as discoveries. For example, we are treated to an extended analysis of Gandhi’s short-lived decision, in 1908, to study medicine in London, which, Guha tells us, ‘seems to have escaped the attention of historians and biographers.’ More interesting is the fact that part of the future Mahatma’s early tract, Hind Swaraj, was inspired by an article of G. K. Chesterton’s, though even this ‘discovery’ fails to match up to Guha’s epic ambitions. An extraordinary concatenation of such facts creates the texture of an epic without its marvels, since Guha is equally concerned with presenting a ‘realistic’ portrait of the Mahatma. His notion of realism, however, has to do with politics as much as representation, so that Gandhi appears cautious and moderate in all things, and therefore a good model for liberals everywhere.   The difficulty raised by this form of realism is that Guha can only ascribe what are, today, the most commonplace virtues to Gandhi, whose heroism thus resides merely in the fact that he espoused them earlier than others. Yet such virtues are always at risk, which is why ...


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