By Alex White (@alex_j_white)
Travel literature can be invaluable to historians studying the dynamics of migration, tourism and cultural difference. However, they can be equally useful for shedding light on the interests and preoccupations of their own authors. This is certainly the case with Gandhi’s Guide to London, an unpublished booklet from 1893 written for Indian students intending to study in Great Britain.
In some ways, the Guide paints a familiar image of Gandhi. Frugal and thorough, he calculates the cost of everything from food and rent to tongue-scrapers and Turkish caps. He praises clean living, urging students to sleep with their windows open to embrace the ‘invigorating’ British weather. At the same time, he dismisses ‘poisons’ like alcohol and coffee – as well as subtler vices like the University of Cambridge, which he considers only fit for ‘enjoyment and pleasures’ at the expense of thorough work.
However, the Guide also reveals a different side to its author. This early Gandhi is uncritical of empire, wholeheartedly encouraging Indians to pursue British qualifications. He is also painfully shy, recounting how he would subsist on sweets to avoid awkward communal dinners, and often naïve. At one point, Gandhi notes how he was once ushered into a small room and was shocked when the door opened to a different corridor. The Mahatma, it transpired, had just travelled in a lift.
Ultimately, Gandhi’s Guide to London might tell us less about London than it does about Gandhi. In doing so, however, it might help us to fill a gap in his biography, reconstructing a ‘Gandhi before India’ which acknowledges his formative student years.
 ‘Guide to London’, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 1 (Electronic book: New Delhi, 1999), p.65.
 Ibid, pp.71, 121.
 Ibid, p.108.
 Ibid, pp.16, 68, 118.
Image: Author’s own photograph.