Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, champion of justice, father of India, began life as a shy, unremarkable child in Porbandar, Gujarat. He was born into a humble household, the youngest son of his father’s fourth wife. At school, he proved to be a mediocre student – good at English, average at maths, bad at geography – while at home he rebelled against his devout Hindu upbringing by stealing, smoking cigarettes and eating meat.
Eager to explore the world and improve his situation; Gandhi set off on a three-week crossing aboard the SS Clyde to study law at Inner Temple, London, in 1888 – promising his mother he wouldn’t drink alcohol or eat red meat while he was away.
He spent the next three years struggling with his identity, feeling awkward about his differences and trying to fit in with Western fashions and social norms. His vegetarianism was another source of strife, until he discovered a vegetarian restaurant and other vegetarians in Farringdon. It was a turning point: among a group of outsiders, the shy youth was galvanised to defend his diet, sharpening his debating skills as a board member of the Vegetarian Society, writing essays and organising vegetarian feasts. (Farringdon today is a lot richer, but remains a bastion of progressive politics.)
Three years later, armed with a law degree, Gandhi returned to India, but didn’t possess the bullish confidence needed to succeed in Mumbai’s competitive job market. So, in 1893, he accepted an offer from a law firm in South Africa. It was here, first in Durban and then in Johannesburg, that the Mahatma Gandhi we know today was truly born.
Gandhi had a crash course in the racial oppression that was rife in South Africa. The young lawyer was ordered to remove his turban in a court in Durban (he refused). A week later he took a train to Pretoria and was forced to move to a third-class compartment despite holding a first-class ticket. He again refused and was ejected from the train in Pietermaritzburg, where he spent a freezing night in the waiting room. It was the last straw. For the next two decades, Gandhi was committed to ending the towering injustices towards his own people. It also determined his class of travel: ‘The first-class life I abhor,’ he wrote.
After achieving moderate success, he returned to India in 1915, where his unique brand of activism was directed towards unjust British rule (and against the terrible state of third-class rail travel). His most famous act of civil disobedience was the Salt March in 1930. That 24-day, 380-kilometre journey from Sabarmati, a suburb of Ahmedabad, to Dandi protested against the law prohibiting Indians from collecting or selling salt. Staff in hand and setting a brisk pace, Gandhi determinedly led 79 followers – which eventually swelled to a three-kilometre-long procession – to the sea to make their own salt.
By now, Gandhi had also permanently adopted the dhoti (a loose cloth wrapped around the waist), sandals and shawl, which was itself a form of protest. ‘Copying the European dress is a sign of our degradation, humiliation and weakness,’ he believed. He wouldn’t budge – not even for the Pope, who refused an audience with Gandhi when he travelled to Rome in 1931 on the grounds that his appearance was not up to scratch.
Left: PhotoStock-Israel / Alamy Stock Photo; Right: Pep Roig / Alamy Stock Photo
A year after Indian independence was declared, Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 in Delhi; but his influence continues to be felt. As Nelson Mandela said in 2007, ‘In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.’