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Mohandas Gandhi

From London to South Africa

Gandhi's Youth

In South Africa: I

In London, the young Gandhi–a slender Indian with protruding ears and terrible shyness–felt desperately isolated. His command of English, despite a high-school education that emphasized the language, was weak and his command of European custom weaker, and on the boat to Southampton he ate in his cabin to avoid embarrassment. In England, fortunately, family friends took him under their wing and enabled him to get settled in a boarding-house without incident. But problems persisted–notably the difficulty of diet. Vegetarian food was hard to come by in Victorian London, and many Indians simply abandoned the Hindu strictures on eating meat. But Gandhi had promised his mother to keep his religious customs, and he was a man who kept promises, so he subsisted on oatmeal porridge and other dishes until he found a suitable restaurant–and in it, a work entitled A Plea for Vegetarianism that converted him from being a vegetarian by birth to a vegetarian by conviction, a position he was to maintain for his entire life.

In other respects, however, Gandhi made a conscious attempt to westernize himself, taking lessons in French, dancing, elocution and the violin. Although he soon abandoned these, it was during this period that he also began dressing in the English fashion, a habit that he was to keep up for many years. At the same time, his philosophical and religious education began in earnest, as he became friends with a number of Christians, reading the Bible for the first time. While he never accepted the Christian idea of sin and redemption, and tended toward a universalist idea of religion rather than Christian particularism, Gandhi was deeply influenced by the New Testament, particularly Christ's Sermon on the Mount, with its celebration of humility and "the poor in spirit."

It was in England as well, ironically enough, that Gandhi first seriously read the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the great sacred works of his own Hindu tradition. He discovered the work through some friends involved in theosophy, a faddish mélange of superstition and Eastern then fashionable in Victorian society, and he was soon enthralled by its poetry and message. Written between the fifth and second centuries B.C., the Bhagavad-Gita consists of a dialogue between Arjuna, a legendary Indian general, and the hero Krishna, whom Hindus worship as a god. There have been many interpretations of the work over the centuries, but Gandhi found in it the idea of suppressing appetite, attachments, and desire itself in the pursuit of a larger good–an idea that was to guide his later career.

Gandhi studied hard to pass the bar–harder, a number of biographers have argued, than most English students of the time–and was enrolled as a barrister (an English word for lawyer) on June 11 of 1891, after less than three years in England. Eager to return to his home, relatives, wife, and child, he sailed for Bombay the very next day. His return to India, however, was not entirely the happy homecoming he had imagined. Gandhi's mother had died while he was abroad, and the family had withheld the news from him so as not to disrupt his studies. He had been anxious to see her, and the news of her passing was a harsher blow, in many ways, than his father's death had been. At the same time, his law career ran into difficulties, and he was unable to earn the living that his growing family demanded (he now had two children). His first lawsuit ended in a disaster when his shyness overcame him and he was unable to cross- examine a witness; he tried to obtain a position teaching law in Bombay, but met with no luck. He went home and earned a living by writing briefs and legal documents for other lawyers and his clients, but he soon developed a distaste for the petty corruption of the law courts and the arrogance of the local British. It was with relief, then, (albeit with regret at leaving Kasturbai, with whom his relationship had greatly improved since his return from Britain) that he accepted an offer from a Muslim Indian firm to travel to South Africa for a year and advise on a lawsuit. At the time, the journey seemed merely a relief from the mediocrity of his professional life; in retrospect, however, it was one of the turning points of Gandhi's life.

South Africa in those days consisted of four governmental units–Natal, the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, and the Cape Colony. The first and last of these were ruled by Britain, but the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were independent republics, ruled by Dutch settlers known as Boers, who had come to the region in the previous century and had a long history of antagonism with the more powerful British. The Indian population was concentrated in Natal, and consisted largely of unskilled laborers working on sugar and coffee plantations. There was also a growing merchant class within the community, however–made up largely of Muslims from India's west coast– whose rapidly increasing numbers caused concern both to the Boers and the English merchants. South Africa was already showing that tendency toward racist policies that would later manifest itself in the "apartheid" regime of the 20th century, and while the Indians did not suffer as much as the black population did and would continue to do, they were clearly second-class citizens. This situation, while contrary to the British Empire's legal idea of equality, was nonetheless permitted by the English authority in South Africa, largely in order to placate the white settlers and the independent Boer states, whose interactions with the Crown constantly threatened to erupt in violence.

Gandhi, traveling around the region by train while at work for his new employers, experienced this discrimination first hand, as he was forced to wait overnight in a Transvaal train station when he refused to give up his first- class seat to a white passenger–an incident with overtones of the famous Rosa Parks incident in the American South's Civil Rights movement years later. (Indeed, the comparison is not incidental; the Civil Rights movement adopted much of his non- violent demonstration tactics from Gandhi's later protest methods.) Gandhi also had difficulty being admitted to hotels, and his growing sense of outrage led him to make his first move as a public figure–a speech to an assembly of Transvaal Indians in which he urged what would become the typical Gandhi program: he asked his fellow Indians to adopt clean living habits (all his life he would be obsessed with sanitation), unite in spite of their differences, work hard, and learn English. Only then, he asserted, would they be able to achieve the political equality they desired and deserved.

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