M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: the Man Before the Mahatma by Charles R. DiSalvo, University of California Press, 350 pp., $34.95, hardback.
Reading: Charles DiSalvo will give a reading at noon on Jan. 15 at the WVU Law School's Davis Gallery in Morgantown.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia University law professor Charles DiSalvo's new book on the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi focuses on the period between 1888 -- when Gandhi, at age 18, started studying law in London -- and 1911, when Gandhi at age 42 ended his 23-year career as a lawyer in South Africa. He became a full-time activist, ultimately returning to India to lead a national independence campaign based on nonviolent principles.
Gandhi's writings on nonviolence have captured the moral imaginations of millions of people. Gandhi developed strategic techniques like civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and self-suffering for truth that have empowered people in many arenas -- from the coalfields and lunch counters of West Virginia to Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Gandhi began his legal career in the bustling South African colonial port city of Durban. The book has a touching picture of the young Gandhi, in a dapper suit and wearing a stiff collar and tie, seated proudly in a chair on the wooden sidewalk in front of his storefront office. The window behind him is lettered "M.K. Gandhi, Attorney."
There was plenty of lawyer work for the young Gandhi in South Africa, with many thousands of immigrants from India. Indian merchants provided a good income to Gandhi, and he dressed elegantly and lived in a nice house in a good neighborhood, as befitting his status as a barrister, the highest level of English legal advocate who could appear before all courts.
DiSalvo's book reflects his deep and multi-dimensional understanding of Gandhi's South African legal career. DiSalvo's journey to that understanding began in 1978, when he himself was a fledgling public interest lawyer, interested in the legal aspects of civil disobedience. When he learned to his surprise that Gandhi's legal career had never been researched, DiSalvo decided to undertake the task.
The research effort turned out to be huge. It included examining 10,000 issues of South African newspapers for contemporaneous stories about Gandhi's cases; and hundreds of volumes of court records.
No historian had ever done such research before, and the resulting documentary collection is a treasure-trove of previously unknown information about Gandhi. (The Indian edition of the book has many more endnotes that did not make the U.S. edition; the notes are available on-line).
Gandhi, who was big on keeping vows, would be proud of DiSalvo's fidelity to his task over more than 35 years. Always his own person, Gandhi would also admire how DiSalvo constantly second-guesses Gandhi's legal strategies -- just like a law professor critiquing a fledgling advocate!