M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 4
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Chapter 4. The White City
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THE WHITE CITY
If we begin at the beginning, we must visit, in fancy, a city in Western India, called Porbandar, and try to recall it, as it appeared a generation ago. This was the ancestral home of the Gandhis. Many changes have come since then; even in slow-changing India. Porbandar has changed. The city of yesterday has gone. Its primitive customs, its haughty isolation, its serene atmosphere, have almost vanished. The city of to-day is not Porbandar. It occupies, of course, the old spot close to the sea. It still claims a proud position as "Capital of the Principality of Porbandar, in the sub-province of Kathiawar, in the Province of Gujarat." It still holds fifty villages in vassalage. And still its Rana Sahib is regarded as "a first-class Power." But old Hindu Porbandar has gone forever.
In the days of which we write, like most towns in Kathiawar, it was surrounded by substantial walls, some twenty feet thick, and high in proportion. These have since been destroyed. The houses were built chiefly of stone quarried in the neighbourhood. The stone was white and soft—easily worked but hardening under exposure, so that, in time, these buildings became like solid blocks of marble fitted to endure an age. There was some approach also to architectural excellence, and although most of the streets were narrow, and the bazaars crowded, the effect was wonderfully picturesque. That "White City," with its massive walls seen from a distance, in the coloured glory of the setting Sun, was a vision of beauty never to be forgotten. Unfortunately, there were few trees in Porbandar. The palace and garden of the Rana Sahib were within the walls, but apart from these, the tropic loveliness of those spots.
- "... Where the feathery palm-trees rise,
- And the dates grow ripe under sunny skies,"
had no place in the scene. The only green things which were common in the city were the tulsi-plants, in their pots or tubs, before which puja was done.
Outside the walls, the sea was almost within a stone's throw. It swept around the city so closely, that at times it made almost an island of Porbandar, changing the neighbouring fields into a swamp, and necessitating a bridge in later times. Beyond this, and away from the sea, the plain spread out unchecked to the distant Barda Hills.
Over this plain and on those purple hills, some forty years ago, the horrors of civil war raged. Apparently. the great convulsions which have changed the fact of India-Moghul and Mahratta wars, the victories of Clive and Hastings, the India Mutiny—hardly raised the temperature of Kathiawar, but internal trouble, more than once, has done so. At one time. a large portion of the people of Porbandar, the warrior caste, disowned the Rana Sahib, and civil war followed. The Prince was victorious, but traditions are still told, over the hookah of the glorious stand made by two brothers who were outlaws—Maccabæan in their bravery—and of how they fought to the last, one defiantly using his gun with his feet when his hands were useless. The Gujaratis were evidently cast in another mould from that of the milder natives of Eastern India, and the experience of war has told.
The sea, too, has had its powerful influence over them. As with the Phœnicians, the Northmen, and the British, the sea has been their nursing mother. The chief occupation of Porbandar, from remote antiquity has been "doing business in the great waters." Vessels constructed here might be met with from Zanzibar to Aden, and the wild ocean-life gave these people an independence of character, and a wide knowledge of men and thing in other hands. Thirty years ago, a very large proportion of the men of Porbandar had been across the sea, either for purposes of trade, carrying their noted ghee or else, in the service of the State.
This is to show from which the Gandhis sprang.
The Princes of Porbandar, who were knit up with the family, trace back their genealogy to Hanuman, the Monkey-God, which means that the records are ancient. What strange, fantastic, choleric characters these old Hindu Chiefs must have been! Take, for instance, Rana Sahib Vikramajit, the Prince before whom Ootamchand and Karamchand Gandhi stood as Dewan Sahibs. Here is his picture: "Firm-minded, singularly chaste in morals, keen-sighted, often cruel, so independent that he quarrelled with the political agent, so stubborn that he raised a Civil War, so niggardly that his dependents were almost starved, and yet with compensating characteristics which won their affection." A curious combination, not unusual in old India.
To be Prime Minister in the court of such a Prince was no sinecure. It meant at least occasional excitements, and a general sense of insecurity. Yet Ootamchand Gandhi, grandfather of our Mohandas, held that position for many years. Once, during the interregnum, before Vikramajit came to the throne, a romantic incident happened, which left material marks on the family inheritance. Ootamchand incurred the displeasure ot the Queen-Regent. He was displaced and fled, and the State soldiers bombarded his house. Marks of the cannon-ball can still be seen on the old mansion. Then he escaped to Junagadh, across the Barda Hills. The Nawab of Junagadh received him kindly, but the courtiers noted that Gandhi's salute was given with the left hand, an insult greater than that for which others had lost their heads. The Nawab questioned him about it. He replied, respectfully but firmly, that "in spite of all that he had suffered, he kept his right hand for Porbandar still." It is to the credit of the Nawab that he appreciated the patriotism of the disgraced Minister, and maintained him honourably until the storm passed over. and Gandhi was recalled.
When the grandfather died, his son Karamchand took his place, and served as Prime Minister of Porbandar for twenty-five years. Then he, too, incurred the displeasure of his sovereign—by no means a difficult task in those days—took his leave and went to Rajkot, bequeathing to his brother his badge of office and the honours of the palace.
The Gandhi "clan" were evidently of considerable importance in the political life of Porbandar. "One of my earlier memories," said Mohandas, "is connected with the learning and repetition, as a child, of the family pedigree, with all its ramifications, and offshoots, away there in the old home within the walls of the White City."