M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

THE MAN HIMSELF

It was late in December, 1907, when I saw Mr. Gandhi for the first time. Rumour had been very busy with his name. The Passive Resistance movement had come into prominence. Some small stir had been made in the newspapers by the imprisonment of a Pundit, and in one way or another, Mr. Gandhi's name had been bandied from lip to lip. One evening, a friend raised the Asiatic Question at the supper-table, and as we were comparatively new to Johannesburg, although not new to the country, he told us what he thought of the Indians. His account was so strange and so completely opposed to all our previous experience, that it made us curious, and more than anything else decided me to interview the leader.

The office, at the corner of Rissik and Anderson Streets, I found to be like other offices. It was intended for work and not for show. The windows and door were adorned with the name of the occupant with the denomination of Attorney attached to it. The first room was given up to a lady-typist; the second, into which I was ushered, was the SANCTUM SANCTORUM. It was meagrely furnished and dusty. A few pictures were scattered along the walls. They were chiefly photographs of no great merit. The Indian Stretcher-bearer Corps was in evidence—photogaphs of Mrs. Besant, Sir William Wilson Hunter, and Justice Ranade—several separate Indian portraits—and a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ. Some indifferent chairs, and shelves filled with law books completed the inventory.

All this I confess to have noted afterwards. Just then, my whole attention was centred in the man who geeted me, and in an effort to readjust my ideas to unexpected experiences. Having travelled in India, I had almost unconsciously selected some typical face and form as likely to confront me, probably a tall and stately figure, and a bold, masterful face, in harmony with the influence which he seemed to exert in Johannesburg. Perhaps a bearing haughty and aggessive. Instead of this, to my surprise, a small, lithe, spare figure stood before me, and a refined, earnest face looked into mine. The skin was dark, the eyes dark, but the smile which lighted up the face, and that direct fearless glance, simply took one's heart by storm. I judged him to be of some thirty-eight years of age, which proved correct. But the strain of his work showed its traces in the sprinkling of silver hairs on his head. He spoke English perfectly, and was evidently a man of great culture.

Asking me to be seated, he listened to an explanation of my visit, noting the points raised with a nod of the head, and a quick "Yes," until I had done. Then he went straight to the mark. Using his fingers to emphasize his thoughts, he gave the most luminous statement of the Asiatic position, in a few crisp sentences, that I have ever heard. I was anxious to know what the religious elements in the struggle were, and he gave them with convincing clearness, explaining patiently every little involved issue, and satisfying himself that I understood before dealing with the next. Once, when he paused longer than usual, to see whether I had grasped the thought or had sake of courtesy, I closed my note-book, thinking he had finished. "Don't close it," he said, "the chief point is yet to come."

There was a quiet assured strength about him, a greatness of heart, a transparent honesty, that attracted me at once to the Indian leader. We parted friends.

When I think of him now, one or two scenes stand out more vividly than others.

There is the trial in the "B" Criminal Court, a great mass of excited Asiatics crushed in at the door, and spreading to a great crowd outside. The cynical Magistrate, with his face flushed, presiding at the Bench; the horseshoe of legal offices below.

Then I can see again that spare, lithe form responding to the call. "Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi," and taking the prisoner's place with alacrity to receive a sentence of "two months' imprisonment" for the sake of his suffering people. Just prior to this, he had addressed these words to the hundreds of Asiatics who had gathered at the Mosque:—"No matter what may be said, I will always repeat that it is a struggle for religious liberty. By religion, I do not mean formal religion, or customary religion, but that religion which underlies all religions, which brings us face to face with our Maker. If you cease to be men, if, on taking a deliberate vow, you break that vow, in order that you may remain in the Transvaal without physical inconvenience, you undoubtedly forsake God. To repeat again the words of the Jew of Nazareth, those who would follow God have to leave the world, and I call upon my countrymen, in this particular instance, to leave the world and cling to God, as a child clings to its mother's breast." Notable and brave words.

Another scene recurs to my mind with equal vividness. The Pathans had attacked him, striking him down and beating him with savage brutality. When he recovered consciousness, he was lying in an office nearby to which he had been carried. I saw him a moment later. He was helpless and bleeding, the doctor was cleansing his wounds, the police officers watching and listening beside him, while he was using what little strength he had to insist that no action should be taken to punish his would-be murderers. "They thought they were doing right," he said, "and I have no desire to prosecute them". They were punished, but Mr. Gandhi took no part of it.

These are scenes one can never forget; they serve to reveal the man. Our Indian friend lives on a higher plane than most men do. His actions, like the actions of Mary of Bethany, are often counted eccentric, and not infrequently misunderstood. Those who do not know him think there is stone unworthy motive behind, some Oriental "slimness," to account for such profound unworldliness. But those who know him well are ashamed of themselves in his presence.

Money, I think has no charm for him. His compatriots are angry; they say, "He will take nothing. The money we gave him when he went as our deputy to England he brought back to us again. The presents we made him in Natal, he handed over to our public funds. He is poor because he will be poor."

They wonder at him, grow angry at his strange unselfishness, and love him with the love of pride and trust. He is one of those outstanding characters, with whom to walk is a liberal education, whom to know is to love.