Mohandas Gandhi’s natural honesty forbade the use of touts. So day after day he would go to the High Court, listen to the intricate Indian cases in law (his knowledge of Indian Law was, in any case, sparse), and yawn and go to sleep. He tells us after some time he realised going to sleep at the Bombay High Court was a sign of distinction. All the better lawyers had this habit. It gave you rest before your case was heard; it also indicated your superior confidence in yourself.
One day, however, a client sought his services. It was in connection with a minor case before the Small Causes Court. Mohandas appeared before the magistrate and he could never bring himself to utter a word. His shyness took the best of him. He apologised to the court, then to his client, and now decided he would never never make a barrister.
So he applied for a post of high-school teacher. He was discarded for not having a degree. “I have taken Latin for my Matriculation in London,” he protested. But the school wanted a graduate. The laws said so.
Thus he could not, having spent so much money in London, even be a school-teacher. After six months of an existence unrewarding and hopeless, he decided (on the advice of his elders once again) to go back to Rajkot. After all, his brother might find something for him to do. His brother and another friend were partners in a legal firm. He might still draw up petitions for important clients. This time however he had greater success. He was able to earn more money and was not altogether unhappy. Yet, was this all?
The British at that time had already consolidated their power. Someone with a degree from England must surely get a ministership. But who would give it? The Gandhis had by now lost their influence. The Princes, whether of Porbandar or of Rajkot had become weak, and the British had their own administrators. Mohandas was too highly qualified to be a semi-important administrator – remember his father was once a Prime Minister – but not being an Englishman, he could never be a high official. Further, a small but very significant experience confirmed that he could never, would never, collaborate with the British.
A Mr ECK Ollivant (later Sir Charles) was then Agent to the Kathiawar States. Mohandas’s eldest brother, Lakshmidas, was an advisor to the Rana of Porbandar. The Rana, like innumerable other princes, was involved in some hide and seek game with the British. The state jewels, he claimed, were his personal property. He illegally removed these from the treasury to the palace. Lakshmidas was supposed to be in league with the Prince in this adventure. Mr Ollivant was enraged by such dishonesty and was determined to impose good behaviour on this unprincipled ruler.
Mohandas had met this British administrator in England briefly. Mr Ollivant was, in his own home country, indeed very friendly to the young Indian.
But that was just the tragedy of the British administrator – a gentleman in England, he would be a Sahib in India. A Sahib too is a gentleman, of course, but he’s the Indian version of an Englishman. Superior as a race, courageous, skilful and educated (often at Oxford or Cambridge), the British civil servant believed he was a class by himself – a gentlemen’s gentleman, as it were, and as such superior to all, Englishmen and Indians.
Convinced the Indian was often a liar, and usually a complicated fellow (especially in Kathiawar), the Englishman had to make quick and irrevocable decisions. Generally he did this for the good of the administration, and often it was for the good of the country. It had also, by deeper implication, to be good for Great Britain. What is good for the ICS, the unformulated argument would run, is good for India and England at the same time.
Thus an Indian liar (or dishonest man and “getting away” with his lies) was a blot against the British Empire. The Princes of India on the whole were a set of unscrupulous adventurers (the civil servant believed), who had no interest either in their subjects or in the British Empire, but being useful to the British Empire (by paying tributes or by supplying armed forces in times of Britain’s needs) they were, so to say, useful to India, and finally not so bad to their subjects, etc.
But when one steals a crown jewel and wants to dispose it off (perhaps to pay a debt or reward a concubine), it smells bad. And Lakshmidas Gandhi, who’s supposed to be involved in all his, was a rascal. In fact, the whole lot are bad fellows. To hell with the yahoos!
But the Indians argued it another way. What is good for the British is good for India, for the Britisher is honest and able, and so he loves our country!
He builds bridges and roads, he brings in the railway to unheard-of places (like Rajkot, for example), imposes a just tax on the cultivator, and, if unjust, would sometimes repeal it. Which Maharaja today would ever dream of being so honest? The Englishman too believes he comes of a superior race. Perhaps he is of a superior race.
If they be of such moral superiority, why then do they sometimes miscarry justice, believe in what no Indian would believe, and generally act as if they had no human understanding? If superior, they should understand the Indians. Superiority comes from wisdom. If they do not understand the Indian, they would not possibly be so able, or so superior. Such the basis of tragedy.
Let Mohandas himself tell the story.
I could not refuse him (my brother) so I went to the officer much against my wish...I opened my case. The Sahib was impatient.
Your brother is an intriguer. I want to hear nothing from you...
But selfishness is blind. The Sahib got up and said, You must go now!
But please hear me out, said I. That made him more angry. He called his peon and ordered him to show me the door. I was still hesitating when the peon came in, placed his hands on my shoulders and put me out of the room.
The Sahib went away as also the peon, and I departed fretting and fuming.
Sir Phirozeshah Mehta happened then to be in Rajkot for a case. A friend of Mohandas Gandhi told him the story and asked advice.
“Tell Gandhi,” he said, did Sir Phiroze, “such things are the common experiences of many barristers. He is still fresh from England and hot-blooded. He does not know British officers...He will gain nothing by proceeding against the Sahib, and on the contrary he will very likely ruin himself.”
“This shock changed the course of my life.”
Just at this moment of deepest despair, the hand of god showed itself. There was a firm at Porbandar which had important connections with South Africa (Porbandar had ancient contacts with Arabia, and for over a hundred years or so, with Africa).
Dada Abdulla and Co was a rich firm in Durban in litigation with another rich Indian firm in the Transvaal. They wanted legal help, especially from an Indian. Would the son of Karamchand Gandhi, just returned from London, go to Durban and help in the progress of the case? In fact, Mohandas Gandhi would not have to plead before the courts – he had just to give legal help with the documents, translate the letters from the Indian languages, etc. It was really a clerical job. It was not even well paid – a return boat-fare, and a fee of £105 was all that was promised.
“This was hardly going there as a barrister,” wrote Gandhiji. “But I wanted somehow to leave India. There was also the tempting opportunity of seeing a new country, and of having a new experience. Also I could send £105 to my brother and help in the expenses of the household. I closed with the offer without any haggling and got ready to go to South Africa.”
Excerpted with permission from Mahatma Gandhi: The Great Indian Way, Raja Rao, Penguin Books.
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