Writing the life of Manilal Mohandas Gandhi
Manilal Gandhi was the second son of Mohandas (later Mahatma) and Kasturba Gandhi. Unlike his father who spent just over two decades in South Africa, Manilal spent close to five decades of a life (which spanned sixty-four years) in South Africa. Most of these years, in particular, were lived at Phoenix Settlement in the Inanda countryside on the communal farm that Gandhi had started in 1904. For thirty-six years of his life (1920-1956) Manilal was editor of the newspaper Indian Opinion which his father had had a crucial hand in establishing in 1903. This Gandhi, however, is relatively unknown in South Africa. To remedy that I wrote his biography, published in 2004.413 Sufficient time has passed for me to reflect on the writing of the book, its objectives, the sources used, the reception of the book and especially its portrayal in the media in South Africa and in India. This reflection provides an opportunity for the historian to examine the practices of biographical writing but also to cast some understanding on what Judith Brown referred to as the “Gandhi phenomenon”414 that hit India in the 1920s but which continues to manifest itself world-wide despite the fact that the Mahatma died almost six decades ago.
In my book I clearly spelt out the reasons why I was motivated to write about Manilal Gandhi.415 I felt that while scholars both in India andSouth Africa had written about the history of Phoenix Settlement and Indian Opinion their interest was confined to the period up to 1914 after which Gandhi returned to India. I argued thus that the history of Phoenix and Indian Opinion after 1914 is equally worthy of study. Manilal was central to that story. He played an important role in keeping his father’s heritage alive in South Africa. In 1917 when the Gandhi family had been in India for three years, Manilal was sent back to South Africa by his father to help with the newspaper. He took over the editorship of the paper from Albert West in 1920 and lived at Phoenix till his death in 1956. During this time he went to jail several times in protest against restrictive laws against Indians and Africans. Understanding the difficulties of publishing and editing a newspaper and running a farm on Gandhian ideals were thus important considerations. I also confessed to significant personal motivations to tell this story. My mother, Sita, was Manilal’s eldest daughter and she had felt that Manilal’s contribution both to Phoenix and to South Africa’s resistance struggle had to be documented and recognised. Yet I was also driven by my assessment as a historian that much life writing needed to be done about South Africa’s lesser known heroes and heroines. The years since our birth as a democracy in 1994 has seen some attempts to remedy this and have been marked by a significant growth in biographical and autobiographical writing – black lives and their struggles have been celebrated and commemorated. The moment then seemed appropriate to bring Manilal’s life to the fore.