M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

LIFE IN LONDON (I)

After Mohandas had matriculated at Ahmadabad, he entered College at Bhavnagar, intending to graduate. On his first holiday visit to Rajkot, however, a Brahmin friend of the family, who was his spiritual adviser, turned his thoughts another way. A resident of Rajkot had just returned from London, after having been called to the Bar. The clear-sighted Brahmin pointed to him, saying, "If you wish to make headway in your country, and become, like your father, a man of importance, you had better relinquish the idea of graduating here. You must go to London and become a barrister."

Naturally, this idea, involving as it did, the necessity of travel, coincided entirely with the young student's desires. Adventure, sight-seeing, new circumstances, together with ambition for advancement, mingled with his dreams. He determined to go, if his mother and brother would consent. His father had died four years before. It was not difficult to persuade the brother. It seemed to him, as it did to the Brahmin, the only way of making progress. With his usual generosity, he suggested that the property which his father had left, together with the family jewels, if need be, should be sold to provide the necessary funds for this venture.

With the mother it was different. She realised, with a woman's insight, the moral and spiritual perils of such a course. Her Hindu training led her to recoil from it. Realistic tales of London life had filled her with horror. Nights were spent in prayer and days in argument, before at last she consented. But even then consent was only given on condition that the youth should bind himself by a threefold oath of renunciation.

There remained but few things, after this, to be done before starting. One of these was to visit the old home at Porbandar. Mohandas had never travelled so far alone before, but recognising that now he must dare to be self-reliant, he set out on his journey. It was made partly by waggon, and partly on camel-back, and Porbandar was reached in safety.

Sir F. S. P. Lely was at that time the British Administrator in Porbandar, and it was within his power to grant a scholarship to any promising Indian student, which would materially help him in London. To obtain such a scholarship was partly the object of this journey. It resulted in failure. Perhaps, although, Mr. Gandhi had obtained all kinds of scholarships in the schools which he attended, he did not impress the Administrator with his talent, or, possibly, some hostile influence had been at work. At any rate, the application failed. "No," said Sir Frederick, "you must graduate first—that would have meant four further years of study—then you can come to me, and I will consider it." But another part of his errand was more successful. His uncle, who had followed Karamchand as Dewan Sahib of Porbandar, endorsed the scheme, gave his blessing, and sent him back to Rajkot, able, at last, to realise his dream.

The news of his intended visit to England was received by a section of his friends in Porbandar with intense disapproval. Probably they belonged to the old Conservative school. They overwhelmed him with abuse, told him that he would disgrace the whole clan, threatened him with condign punishment, and, finally, when their abuse and threatenings proved powerless, called a meeting of caste men in Bombay, and excommunicated him. To this day, while he is welcomed in Rajkot, he is outside the caste society of Porbandar and Bombay.

Two Indian fellow-passengers landed with Mr. Gandhi at the London Docks on a never-to-be-forgotten September afternoon, in 1888, and not knowing where to find their friends in the gear city, they decided to go to the Hotel Victoria. Their luggage was left behind for delivery, and dressed in flannels, which appeared to him a most becoming costume, the Rajkot student entered upon his English experiences. They were not at first particularly happy, and Mr. Gandhi retains vivid memories of that day. His costume and colour drew the attention of passers-by, and sensitive as he was, it appeared to him that he was a marked man. To his surprise, no one else was in flannels, his dark skin was in a hopeless minority, and he began to think that courtesy and refinement were not features of London life. Beyond this he was horribly lonely. After a while, an urgent telegram brought to him an Indian friend, and matters improved. The older man was versed in city ways, and while he laughed at the young student's simplicity, he set himself, as he said, to make an "English gentleman" of him.

His first move was to take Mr. Gandhi to apartments at Richmond; then he carefully instructed him in the way he should go. This friend had accepted European customs with avidity. He ate meat, drank wine, smoked, and enjoyed company, as he imagined a gentleman should. He was himself a brilliant student, and particularly kind. Had it not been for the sacred influence of the mother he would probably have succeeded in his design. As it was, he was partly successful. Under the witchery of a false ideal, the young student wasted a lot of time, and spent a great deal of money needlessly during the first three months.

"I thought it was necessary for me to take dancing lessons," said Mr. Gandhi, "and lessons in elocution, and lessons in French, and even violin-lessons. You know I have no ear for Western music, and the result was a ludicrous failure. The violin was to cultivate the ear, it only cultivated disappointment. Still, as I thought the only way to become an English gentleman was to learn such accomplishments, persevered even with the violin."

But there were lines of resistance in the Rajkot student which nothing could break down. He was true to his oath. Efforts to surprise him into laxity failed, plausible arguments had no weight. It was the mother's vow which gave strength to the Nazarite. When his friend knew the reason, he was furious. "An oath, you duffer!" he cried, "you had no business to come here under an oath. If you were my brother I would knock you down!" It was the food question that especially annoyed him. One night Mr. Gandhi was invited with a number of other students to a brilliant dinner-party at the Holborn Restaurant, the friend evidently imagining that modesty would forbid any questions. But he had failed to gauge the strength of the character with which he had to deal. "When the first course came," said Mr. Gandhi, laughing as he recalled the scene, "I summoned the waiter and inquired what the soup was made of. My host saw the movement, and leaned across the table to ask what it meant. When I told him, he said passionately, “You are not fit for decent society; if you cannot act like a gentleman you had better go.” So I went."

During all this time, he was studying for the Bar at the Inner Temple. But after some months of work and play, he saw that his ideal was a false one, that he was wasting both time and money in foolish dreams, and he determined to make a complete change. He sold his violin, gave up dancing and elocution, and altered entirely the whole course of his life. In addition to lectures at the Inner Temple, he joined a private class for the purpose of taking the London matriculation examination. He also began to live rigorously. Renting a single room, and investing in a stove, he was able to keep all his expenses within £4 a month. He cooked his own breakfast and supper, which, being simply porridge, required no great culinary skill. Dinner he took at a vegetarian restaurant, never exceeding one shilling, sometimes making it sixpence. The idea of the "English gentleman" was forgotten in the passion of the student. This life continued for about three years.