M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 10
Mr. Gandhi discovered that his mother was dead. His friends, wishing to spare him, had not told him of this before he left England, and even on landing, but for his determination to go at once to Rajkot. they would have still preserved silence. The news was a great shock when it came. His mother, with her stern principles and unwavering adherence to the old way, would doubtless have felt the subtle, inexplicable change in her son. But the tie between them was too close and tender to have been disturbed. As it was, Rajkot was shorn of its chief charm. and the home-coming was a painful one.
It had been the elder brother's intention to get the young barrister away to a quiet spot, for the process of ceremonial cleansing according to custom, before his appearance in Rajkot. Probably this influenced his silence regarding the mother's death. Now the cleansing must follow. It was a purely ceremonial observance, and so far as Mr. Gandhi was concerned, had no religious significance. It was simply the prescribed way of readmission to caste society and caste privileges. Nasik, in the Western Ghats, was chosen as the sacred spot. The returned prodigal was bathed, a priest chanted mantras and when the ceremony, involving an expenditure of about Rs. 50, was complete, a caste dinner was held, and without any reference being made to the subject which occasioned it, he was admitted and welcomed as one of the company.
The practice of the law, in Rajkot, and the study of the law in the High Court of Bombay, together with a more systematic research into the old Hindu faith under a learned Jain, occupied Mr. Gandhi for some eighteen months. Then an invitation came, through his brother, to go to South Africa. A firm in Porbandar, with a branch in Pretoria, offered him a twelve months' engagement to undertake an important law-suit, in which a number of Indians were involved. The offer was accepted, and this is how, in 1893, Mr. Gandhi made his first acquaintance with South Africa. It was not altogether happy, but it accurately foreshadowed what has been his experience ever since.
His first day in Natal disillusioned him. He said, "I have made a mistake in coming. My clients have misled me." The country was beautiful. The waving banana leaves, the vast fields of sugar-cane, the date-bushes springing from a tangle of tropical growth, reminded him of his native land. The while English faces suggested pleasant reminiscences of the little island across the sea. It would be difficult to imagine a more lovely spot than Durban, or more hospitable people than his citizens. But, apparently, there was no welcome for an Indian. Evidences of a radical difference of treatment between white and coloured people startled the new arrival, and cut him to the quick.
He himself was a high-caste Hindu, the child of an ancient and noble race. His father, grandfather, and uncle had been Prime Ministers of their respective Courts. His childhood and youth had been spent in India, familiar with all the splendour of an Eastern palace. In manhood he had known nothing of colour-prejudice, but had been granted free access to polite English society. Prince Ranjitsinhji was his friend. By profession he was a banister, trained in the fine old English Law Schools of the Inner Temple, and called to the Bar in London—a cultured gentleman in every sense of the term. Hitherto he had looked upon a white face as the face of a friend. He had been taught from childhood to admire the justice of British law and the purity of British honour. It is true that, now and then. some British official had shown himself brusque or over-bearing, but nothing, so far, had happened to chill his 1oyalty.
Here, in Natal, it was all changed. When, on the day following his advent, according to Eastern habits of respect, he wore his barrister's turban in Court, sitting, beside his client's solicitor at the horse-shoe, and was rudely ordered to remove his hat, he left the building smarting under a sense of insult. It was a feeling frequently to be aroused.
The case for which he was engaged needed his presence in Pretoria. The train could only take him as far as Chariestown. His clients had advised him to take a bed-ticket for the journey. This he neglected to do, having his own rugs with him. At Pietermaritzburg, before starting, a fellow-passenger called the guard, and to his surprise, Mr. Gandhi was ordered to "come out and go into the van-compartment." As he held a first-class ticket, and knew that the carriage went through to Charlestown, he refused. The guard insisted. The train was ready to start. He refused again. A constable was brought, and the Indian stranger was forcibly ejected, his bundles pitched out after him, and. with the train gone, he was left to shiver in the waiting-room all night.
When at length he reached Transvaal, began his coach-journey, he again felt the disadvantage of being an Indian. The coach was about to leave Paardeberg with Mr. Gandhi seated on the box, when the guard, a big Dutchman, wishing to smoke, laid claim to this place, telling the Indian passenger to sit down at his feet. "No," said Mr. Gandhi, quietly, "I shall not do so." The result was a brutal blow in the face. The victim held on to the rail, when another blow nearly knocked him down. Then the passengers interfered, much to the guard's disgust. "Let the poor beggar alone," they said, and the man, threatening to "do for him" at the next stage, desisted. But at Standerton the coach was changed, and the rest of the journey accomplished without incident.
It is almost amusing now, to anyone acquainted with Colonial prejudice, if it were not so pitiful, to note how utterly ignorant the new-comer was of it all. He even drove to the Grand National Hotel on reaching Johannesburg, where, of course, there was "no room" for him. Everywhere it was the same. The colour-bar was a terrible disadvantage, and experiences like these so disheartened and disgusted him, that, but for his contract with the Indians, he would leave left South Africa at once.
As it was, the contract held him, and the twelve months spent in Pretoria were a distinct gain. He learned self-restraint. Even when the sentry kicked him off the foot-path in front of President Kruger's house, and his European friends wished to test the legality of the act, he refused to retaliate. He learned to bear the insults which attached to his race and colour, until, lot the sake of his people, he almost gloried in them, and, gradually, pride of birth and education gave way before the humility of sacrifice.
During this period, Mr. Gandhi attended Bible classes conducted by a prominent solicitor in Pretoria, and studied the characters of Christian people, with a keenness of vision which they seldom suspected. Having plenty of time, he read widely, "quite eighty" books within this year; among them, Butler's "Analogy," Tolstoi's works, "The Six Systems," by a Jain philosopher, and a great deal of Dr. Parker's "Commentaries" He also read the whole Bible for the first time. When, in his consecutive study, he reached the "Sermon on the Mount," he began to realise the full charm of Scriptures. "Surely," he said, "there is no distinction between Hinduism, as represented in the Bhagavad Gita and this revelation of Christ; both must be from the same source."
In order to clear his thought or confirm his conviction, Mr. Gandhi consulted his friend Dr. Oldfield, and a learned Jain teacher in Bombay. He also corresponded on the subject with Edward Maitland, an exponent of Esoteric Christianity. Mrs. Anna Kingsford's book entitled "The Perfect Way" had greatly impressed him. He was slowly feeling his way to some definite religious faith. Not least among the formative influences of that year was a visit to the Wellington Convention, and his contact with Dr. Andrew Murray, the veteran Dutch Reformed Minister, Mr. Spencer Walton, and other leaders of the Keswick school. Speaking with appreciation of this experience, he said, with an amused smile: "These people loved me so well, that if it would have influenced me to become a Christian, they would have become vegetarians themselves!" So this memorable year passed.