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Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)

From The Vegetarian (London), June 13, 1891:

['Our Workers' was a ocassional series in the newspaper, mostly about workers for the London Vegetarian Society. It is not stated who conducted this interview, or when, but it was almost certainly Gandhi's good friend Josiah Oldfield who was Editor of The Vegetarian at this time, and presumably just before Gandhi left England.]

Our Workers

Photo from The Vegetarian, June 13, 1891.
No indication was given of when it was taken, but probably when he was called to the bar.

Of the many who know something of India there are few who have any true conception of the habits and customs, the thoughts and aspirations, the religions, intheory and practice of the natives of India. Mr. Gandhi's pen, however, has been active in the pages of this paper in doing something to dispel that ignorance.

There is one point connected with the presence of all Hindus in England which is not generally known, and that is the patient, persistent force of character which has been necessary to enable them to overcome the enormous difficulties which lie in the way of their coming here.

To enable Englishmen to appreciate these diffculties and so to respect every Hindu who lands upon these shores, and also to point out to Hindus how these difficulties may be overcome, and how they will find Vegetarian friends in England, we have asked Mr. Gandhi to reply fully to a few questions.

Mr. Gandhi was first asked what was the reason which fist induced him to think of coming over to England and adopting the legal profession.

In a word ambition. I matriculated at the Bombay University, in the year 1887. Then I joined the Bhownagar College, for unless you graduate at the Bombay University you get no status in society. If you want any employment before that, you cannot secure, unless of course you have a very good influence to back you up, a repectale post, giving a handsome salary. But I found that I wold have to spend three years at the least before I could graduate. Moreover, I suffered from constant headaches and nose-bleeding, and this was supposed to be due to the hot climate. And, after all, I could not, even after graduating, expect any very great income.While I was incessantly brooding over these things an old friend of my father's saw and advised me to go to England and take the robe ; he, as it were, fanned the fire that was burning within me. I thought to myself, "If I go to England, not only shall I become a barrister (of whom I used to think a great deal) but I shall be able to see England, the land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilisation." This gentleman had influence with my elders, and so he succeeded in persuading them to send me to England.

This is a very brief statement of my reasons for coming to England, but they by no means represent my present views.

Of course your friends were all delighted at your ambitious purpose?

Well, not all. There are friends and friends. Those who were my real friends, and of about my age, were glad to hear that I was to go to England. Some were friends, or rather well-wishers, old in years. These sincerely believed that I was going to ruin myself, and that I would be a disgrace to my family by going to England. Others, however, set up their opposition simply from malice. They had seen some of the barristers who derived fabulous incomes, and they were afraid that I might do the same. Some, again there were, who thought that I was too young (I am now about twenty-two), or that I should not be able to bear the climate. To cut the matter short, no two persons supported or opposed my coming on the same grounds.

How did you set about carrying out your intentions? Just tell me, if you please, what were your difficulties, and how you overcame them?

Even to try to tell you the story of my difficulties would fill up the whole of your valuable paper. It is a tale of misery and woe. The difficulties may well be likened to the heads of Ravan (the giant of the second great Hindu epic Romayan, whom Rama the Hero fought, and ultimately defeated), which were many, and which were no sooner chopped off than replaced. They may be divided chiefly under four heads, viz., money, consent of my elders, separation from relations, and caste restrictions.

First, then, as to money. Though my father was the prime mnister of more than one native state, he never hoarded money. He spent all thathe earned in charity and the education and marriages of his children, so we were practically left without much cash. He left some property and that was all. When asked why he did not collect money and set it aside for his children, he used to say that his children represented his wealth, and if he hoarded much money he would spoil them. So, then, money was no small difficulty in my way. I tried for some State scholarship but failed. At one place I was asked to prove my worth by graduating and then expect it. Experience teaches me that the gentleman who said so was right. Nothing daunted I requested my eldest brother to devote all the money that was left to my education in England.

Here I cannot helo digressing to explain the family system that prevails in India. There, unlike as in England, the children always, if male, and until marriage, if female, live with their parents. What they earn goes to the father, and so also what they lose is a loss to the father. Of course even the male children do separate under exceptional circumstances, e.g., in the case of a great quarrel. But these are the exceptions. In the legal language of Mayne "Individual property is the rule in the West. Corporate property is the rule in the East." So, then, I have and had no property of my own. Everything was under the control of my brother, and we were all living together.

To return to the question of money. What little my father could leave for me was in the hands of my brother.It could only be set free subject to his consent. Moreover, that was not enough, so I proposed that the whole capital should be devoted to my education. I ask you if any brother would do so here. There are very few such brothers in India. He was told that I might prove an unworthy brother after imbibing in the western ideas, and that the onyl chance of regaining the money would be my returning alive to India, which was very doubtful. But he turned a deaf ear to all these reasonable and well-meant warnings. There was one, and only one condition attached to the consent to my proposal, viz., that I should get the permission of my mother and my uncle. May many persons have such brothers as mine! I then set about the allotted task, which I can assure you was uphill enough. Fortunately I was the pet of my mother. She had much faith in me, and so I succeeded in getting over her superstition, but how was I to make her nod consent to a three years' separation? However, by showing the exaggerated advantages of coming to England, I got her to accede, with much reluctance, to my request. Now for the uncle. He was on the point of going to Benares and other such holy places. After three days' incessant persuasion and arguments I could get the following answer from him -

"I am going on a pilgrimage. What you say may be right, but how could I willingly say 'yes' to your unholy proposal. The only thing I can say is, that if your mother does not mind you going I have no right to interfere."

This can easily be interpreted into "yes." Nor were these the onyl two whom I had to please. In India every one, no matter how remotely connected, thinks he has a right to poke his nose into another's affairs. But when I had exacted (for it was nothing else) acquiesence from the two, the pecuniary difficulties almost disappeared.

The difficulties under the second head are partially discussed above. You will, perhaps, be astonished to hear that I am married. (The marriage took place at the age of twelve.) Small blame then to my wife's parents if they thought they had a right to interfere if only for the sake of their daughter. Who was to look after her? How was she to manage to spend the three years? Of course she was to be looked after by my brother. Poor brother! According to my ideas at thattime I should have taken littel notice of their legitimate fears and growlings, had it not been that their displeasure would have been reflected on my mother and brother. It was no easy task to sit night after night with my father-in-law and to hear and successfully answer his objections. But then I was taught the old proverb, "Patience and perseverance overcome mountains" too well to give way.

When I had money and the requisite permission I said to myself, "How an I to persuade myself to separate from all that is dear and near to me?" In India we fight shy of separation. Even when I had to go from home for a few days m mother wold weep. How, then, was I to witness, without being affected, the heart-rending scene. It is impossible for me to describe the tortures that my mind had to suffer. As the day of leave-taking drew near I nearly broke down. But I was wise enoughx not to say this, even to my closest friends. I knew that my health was failing. Sleeping, waling, drinking, eating, waling, running, reading, I was dreaming and thinking of England and what I would do on that momentous day. At last the day came. On teh one hand my mother was hiding her eyes, full of tears, in her hands, but the sobbing was clearly heard. On the other, I was placed among a circle of some fifty friends. "If I wept they would think me too weak ; perhaps they would not allow me to go to England" soliloquised I, therefore I did not weep, even though my heart was breaking. Last, but not least, came the leave-taking with my wife. It would be contrary to custom for me to see or talk to her in the presence of friends. So I had to see her in a separate room. She, of course, had begn sobbing long before. I went to her and stood like a dumb statue for a moment. I kissed her, and she said, "Don;t go." What followed I need not describe. This done my anxieties were not over. It was but the beginning of the end. The leave-taking was only half done, for I parted with my mother and the wife in Rajkot (where I was educated), but my brother and friends came to see me off as far as Bombay. The scene that took place there was no less affecting.

The collisions with my caste fellows in Bombay defy description, for Bombay is the place where they chiefly live. In ajkot I did not meet with any such opposition worthy of the name. It was my misfortune to live in the heart of the city of Bombay, where they most abound, so I was hemmed in on all sides.I could not go out without being pointed and stared at by some one or another. At one time I was walking near the Town Hall, I was surrounded and hooted by them, and my poor brother had to look at the scene in silence. The culminating point was reached, when a huge meeting of the caste fellows was summoned by the chief representatives. Every member of the caste was called upon to atend the meeting, under pain of forfeiting a fine of five annas. I may here mention that before this step was determined upon, I was pestered with many deputations from them to no avail. At this great meeting I was seated in the centre of the audience. The Patels, as the representatives are called, remonstrated with me very strongly, and reminded me of their connection with my father.It may be mentioned that all this was quite an unique experience to me. They literally dragged me out of my seclusion, for I was not accustomed to such things. Moreover, my position became more precarious on account of an extreme shyness. Seeing that remonstrance fell flat on me, the head Patel addressed me (in effect) in the following words :- "We were your fathers friends, and therefore we feel for you, as heads of the caste you know our power. We are positively informed that you will have to eat flesh and drink wine in England ; moreover, you have to crossthe waers ; all this you must know is against our caste rules. Therefore we command you to reconsider your decision, or else the heaviest punishment will be meted out to you. What have you to say to this?"

I replied in the following words :

"I thank you for your warnings. I am sorry that I cannot alter my decision. What I have heard about England is quite different from what you say ; one need not take meat and wine there. As for crossing the waters, if our brethren can go as far as Aden, why could I not go to England? I am deeply convinced that malice is at the root of all these objections."

"Very well then replied the worthy Patel, in anger, "You are not the son of your father." Then turing to the audience, he went on, "This boy has lost his sense, and we command everyone not to have anything to do with him. He who will support him in any way or go to see him off, will be treated as an outcast, and if the boy ever returns, let him know that he shall never be taken into the caste."

These words fell like a bombshell on all. Even the chosen few who had supported me through thick and thin, left me alone. I had a great mind to answer the childish taunt, but was prevented from doing so by my brother. Thus even though I got out of the ordeal safely, my position became worse than ever. Even my brother began to vaccilate, though only for a moment. He was reminded of the threat that the pecuniary support from him would cost him not only the money, but his membership of the caste. So although he did not say anything to me in person, he asked some of his friends to persuade me either to reconsider my decision or to defer its execution till the fury had subsided. There could be but one answer from me, and ever since that, he never flinched, and, as a fact, he has not been excommunicated ; but the end had not come yet. The intrigues of the caste fellows were always at work. They almost seemed to have scored this time, for they could put off my going for a fortnight. They carried it out thus wise. We went to see a captain of a steamship company, who was requested to say thatit would be unwise for me to leave during that time (August), because of the rough weather in the sea. My brother would consent to anything but this. Unfotunately, this was the first voyage that I had undertaken, so no one knew whether I was a good sailor or not, so I was helpless. Much against my will, I had to put off my departure. I thought the whole structure would fall to the ground. My brother having left a note to a friend, requesting him to give me the passage money when the time came, took leave. The parting scene was similar to the one described above. Now I was left alone in Bombay without any money to buy the passage. Every hour that I had to wait seemed a year. In the meantime I heard that another Indian gentleman was about to leave for England ; this news was a godsend to me. I thought 'I would be allowed to go now'. I made use of the note, and was refused the money. I had to make preparations within twenty-four hours ; I was in a dreadful flutter. Without money I felt as if I was a bird without wings. A friend whom I shal always thank, came to the rescue, and advanced the passage money. I bought the ticket, telegraphed to my brother, and sailed for England on the 4th September, 1888. Such were my chief difficlties which spread over nearly five months. It was a time of terrible anxiety and torture. Now hopeful, now despondent, I dragged along always trying my best, and then depending on God to show me the cherished goal.

(To be concluded)

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