Mahatma Gandhi famously claimed that ‘India lives in her villages’. The focus of his political and social work, and his philosophical writings, was that India was essentially an agrarian civilization, and that it must remain that way.

In fact, India had always lived in her towns too. Our epics spoke of the fabled cities of Ayodhya and Indraprastha. Banaras claimed to be the oldest living city in the world. In medieval North India, the Mughals developed the cities of Delhi, Agra, and Lahore; in medieval South India, a great empire called itself Vijayanagara, the City of Victory. (Its capital, Hampi, spread itself out over miles along the Tungabhadra River, as tourists who now visit its ruins know.) Long before the British came and established the Presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, India had been an urban civilization.

Gandhi’s claim was wrong not merely in a historical sense. It also militated against the facts of his own life. He grew up in towns in Kathiawar, and then went to study in the greatest city in the world, London. In South Africa, he lived and worked in the cities of Durban and Johannesburg. It was in these urban centres that he cut his political teeth; it is here that he made his closest friends and found his true vocation.

It is well known that it was a chance reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, on a train from Johannesburg to Durban, that first attracted Gandhi to the simplicity of rural life. Ruskin’s book inspired him to establish Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm in South Africa. After he returned to India, the Ashram he established on the banks of the Sabarmati was set in fields; it was several decades before those fields were to be colonised by the expanding city of Ahmedabad. It may have been because he sensed this encroachment that he moved to a remote part of Central India in the 1930s, founding a settlement called Sevagram, the Village of Service.

For all his exaltation of the simple, rural, life, it was in that city of gold and greed, Johannesburg, that Gandhi thought of the technique of non-violent resistance that remains the most original of his many contributions to political thought and practice. It was in this city that he first courted arrest; here that he spent time in prison; here that there was the first attempt on his life.

All through his Indian years, too, Gandhi’s life was deeply intertwined with the city. It was the merchants of Bombay who most abundantly funded his movements; it was the ordinary citizens of that city that most enthusiastically went to prison on his behalf. Bombay was the epicentre of his first major all-India satyagraha—the Rowlatt Satyagraha of 1919—as well as of the last—the Quit India movement of 1942.

Gandhi’s three most famous fasts were conducted in three great Indian cities—in Poona in September 1932, in Calcutta in September 1947, and in New Delhi in January 1948 respectively. Before and after these fasts, he visited these cities often, and had many friends and associates in each of them (and a few rivals and adversaries in each of them too).

Gandhi’s fast in Calcutta in September 1947 had brought peace to the riot-torn city. He now came to Delhi, on a similar mission. He had hoped to stay in the Harijan Colony, as he had previously done; but because of perceived threats to his life he was persuaded to stay in Birla House instead. Through the day he span, meditated, and met visitors inside the house; emerging in the evenings to hold his daily prayer meeting in the spacious lawn at the back of the estate. It was at 5.17 pm on the 30th of January 1948 that he was shot dead, while walking to his prayer meeting.

Unlike Calcutta, Bombay, Poona or Delhi, Madras was not the venue of any of Gandhi’s great fasts or campaigns. Yet he had a deep attachment to that city nonetheless. It was from the Tamil country that the bravest satyagrahis of his South African campaigns had come. No one did more to publicize Gandhi’s work than the Madras editor, G. A. Natesan; and there was no Indian politician whom Gandhi respected as much as the Madras-based scholar and sage, C. Rajagopalachari.

In his writings, Gandhi may have exalted the village and scorned the city; yet his actions speak to a deep engagement with urban life. Fortunately, in assessing Gandhi’s historical role, scholars have focused more on his practice than his thought. There are a slew of superb books documenting how Gandhi shaped individual cities, and how he was shaped by them in turn. These include James Hunt’s Gandhi in London, Eric Itzkin’s Gandhi’s Johannesburg, and Usha Thakkar’s and Sandhya Mehta’s Gandhi in Bombay. As richly documented as any of the above, and more lavishly illustrated too, is Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s A Frank Friendship, which is about the Mahatma’s relationship with Bengal as a whole, with plenty of attention paid to his relationship with the greatest of Bengali cities, Calcutta. There is, so far as I know, no book bearing the title Gandhi in Ahmedabad, yet the subject has been well covered in books on that city by (among others) Kenneth Gillion, Howard Spodek, and Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth respectively.

There remains a gap; with regard to the city in which Gandhi spent his last days. Gandhi knew Delhi well and had many intimate friends here; such as the legendary Muslim hakim, Ajmal Khan, the loving Christian priest, Charles Freer Andrews, and the selfless Hindu social worker, Brijkrishna Chandiwala. It was in Delhi that he met successive Viceroys, before and after his various satyagraha campaigns; in Delhi where he had fasted for communal peace in 1924 and again in 1948. I hope a scholar somewhere—young or old, Indian or foreign— is working on a book on how Delhi shaped Gandhi, and how Gandhi shaped Delhi in return. It will be well worth it.

Ramachandra Guha
(first published in Hindustan Times, 6th October 2019)