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Gandhi's Prisoner? The life of Gandhi's son Manilal

by Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

Gandhi's prisoner? The life of Gandhi's son Manilal September 2004, R175.00,

420 pp, hardcover with dust jacket

245 x 170 mm, ISBN: 0-7957-0176-4

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Manilal Gandhi was the second of Gandhi's four sons. Born in India, he spent a crucial part of his childhood and adolescence in South Africa. This was an important period in the life of his father who emerged as a mass-movement leader with his philosophy of Satyagraha (the force of truth). Satyagraha was not only a political weapon, but also a way of life epitomised by the communal settlements Gandhi established, Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm. The lives of his sons were directly affected by Gandhi's transformations. Manilal's life was shaped by his experiences at these two farms. Gandhi returned with his family to India in 1914 but within three years Manilal was sent back to South Africa to assist with the publication of the Gujarati-English weekly, Indian Opinion, which was published at Phoenix. For almost four decades, Manilal, as editor of Indian Opinion, maintained his father's legacy at Phoenix. Following in the Gandhian tradition he was an activist editor who went to prison several times over in protest at unjust laws.

This book seeks to explore a side of Gandhi that biographers have either neglected, misunderstood or judged harshly due to their select focus on Gandhi's controversial relationship with his eldest son, Harilal. Based on hundreds of letters between Gandhi and his four sons this book seeks a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between father and sons. It analyses, in particular, the extent to which Manilal was bound by his father in crucial matters of his life and the consequences of this. It seeks to answer what it meant to be a son of a famous father. Drawing on Manilal's unpublished letters to family and friends, a careful reading of the newspaper he edited, as well interviews with the extended Gandhi family this book provides an untold history of both Phoenix Settlement and Indian Opinion after Gandhi left South Africa. It points to the difficulties and successes that Gandhi's heirs had in continuing his legacy in South Africa. It shows how Manilal's life exemplified the best of his father's ideals. A large number of the 88 black-and-white photographs in the book come from private collections and have not been published before.

'Gandhi's Prisoner? is an exemplary work of biography that illuminates, in richly nuanced ways, the personal lives and political dilemmas of its two chief protagonists. But it is also a splendid work of social history. No student, admirer or critic of Mahatma Gandhi, and no one interested in the history of modern India or modern South Africa, can afford to ignore this quite outstanding book'.
Ramachandra Guha, renowned biographer, historian and journalist

'It is fitting that this aspect of our legacy be documented by an author who is herself from the Gandhi dynasty - being the granddaughter of Manilal and great-granddaughter of the Mahatma. This act of narrative is an affirmation of the continuity of our political traditions, particulalry the commitment to peace and development'.
Nelson Mandela, former South African President

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie is an Associate Professor of History at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town. She is the author/editor of three earlier books: Not Slave, Not Free (Shuter and Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 1992), From Canefields to Freedom: a Chronicle of Indian South African Life (Kwela Books, Cape Town, 2000) and Sita: The Memoirs of Sita Gandhi (Durban Local History Museums and SA History Online, Durban, 2003). She is also Manilal Gandhi's granddaughter.

'This book commemorates the centenary celebrations of Phoenix Settlement. The history of this settlement after Gandhi left South Africa is unwritten and the book tells this story through the life of Manilal, Gandhi's second son who spent is teenage years at the farm but who also returned to South Africa in 1917 and soon took over the management of Phoenix and the editorship of Indian Opinion. He did so till his death in 1956.

The book sets out to provide a correction to the distorted picture people have of Gandhi as a father which is based on his controversial relationship with his eldest son Harilal and which journalists have also sensationalised. It provides a much more comprehensive picture of Gandhi as father and shows a side that readers have not seen before, a father who took pains to explain to his son his beliefs about education and public service and who had great love for his sons. The book shows an extraordinary side of Gandhi as father-in-law to Sushila and as grandfather to Manilal's and Sushila's children.

The title asks a question rather than makes a statement. It is true that Gandhi closed off choices to his sons in certain crucial matters. He had ideals and these ideals had to be maintained when Manilal ran Phoenix and Indian Opinion. It is these ideals that made Gandhi great. But the title also refers to Manilal's devotion to his father. As Arun Gandhi, his son notes Manilal 'was totally subservient to Bapu [Gandhi]. It would seem as though he had no wish or desire of his own other than what Bapu had chalked out for him'. While his eldest daughter Sita did think as she was growing up that her father was too dependent on Gandhi for guidance about every small issue she later came to appreciate Manilal's deference to Gandhi after she came under Gandhi's spell herself when she met him in 1944. The book explicitly questions the idea of imprisonment since Manilal absorbed the best of Gandhi's ideals and learnt above all not to fear the police and opposing apartheid even if it meant death. That was Gandhi's greatest gift to his son and it is the central thesis of the book. It asks the question what it means to be the son of a famous father. Manilal had to find his own space in society but he could never escape the fact that he was Gandhi's son. Whatever he did was judged on this basis. People expected much of him. In this sense he was bound. The book seeks to understand rather than judge father and son. It is a scholarly effort based on oral histories, hundreds of unpublished letters and a close reading of 58 years of Indian Opinion. It seeks to ask what did Manilal do in South Africa and to gain a greater recognition for him in this country as an extraordinarily brave fighter for liberation. Above all he maintained Gandhi's legacy at Phoenix ensuring it has a place in our country's heritage.'