18. SHYNESS MY SHIELD -
THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH
by Mohandas K. Gandhi
I was elected to the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society, and made it a point to
attend every one of its meetings, but I always felt tongue-tied. Dr. Oldfield once said to me, 'You
talk to me quite all right, but why is it that you never open your lips at a committee meeting? You
are a drone.' I appreciated the banter. The bees are ever busy, the drone is a thorough idler. And
it was not a little curious that whilst others expressed their opinions at these meetings, I sat quite
silent. Not that I never felt tempted to speak. But I was at a loss to know how to express myself.
All the rest of the members appeared to me to be better informed than I. Then it often happened
that just when I had mustered up courage to speak, a fresh subject would be started. This went
on for a long time.
Meantime a serious question came up for discussion. I thought it wrong to be absent, and felt it
cowardice to register a silent vote. The discussion arose somewhat in this wise. The President of
the Society was Mr. Hills, proprietor of the Thames Iron Works. He was a puritan. It may be said
that the existence of the Society depended practically on his financial assistance. Many members
of the Committee were more or less his proteges. Dr. Allinson of vegetarian fame was also a
member of the Committee. He was an advocate of the then-new birth control movement, and
preached its methods among the working classes. Mr. Hills regarded these methods as cutting at
the root of morals. He thought that the Vegetarian Society had for its object not only dietetic but
also moral reform, and that a man of Dr. Allinson's anti-puritanic views should not be allowed to
remain in the Society. A motion was therefore brought for his removal. The question deeply
interested me. I considered Dr. Allison's views regarding artificial methods of birth control as
dangerous, and I believe that Mr. Hills was entitled, as a puritan, to oppose him. I had a high
regard for Mr. Hills and his generosity. But I thought it was quite improper to exclude a man from
a vegetarian society simply because he refused to regard puritan morals as one of the objects of
the society. Mr. Hills' view regarding the exclusion of anti-puritans from the Society was personal
to himself, and it had nothing to do with the declared object of the Society, which was simply the
promotion of vegetarianism and not of any system of morality. I therefore held that any vegetarian
could be a member of the Society, irrespective of his views on other morals.
There were in the Committee others also who shared my view, but I felt myself personally
called upon to express my own. How to do it was the question. I had not the courage to speak,
and I therefore decided to set down my thoughts in writing. I went to the meeting with the
document in my pocket. So far as I recollect, I did not find myself equal even to reading it, and the
President had it read by someone else. Dr. Allinson lost the day. Thus in the very first battle of the
kind, I found myself siding with the losing party. But I had comfort in the thought that the cause
was right. I have a faint recollection that after this incident, I resigned from the Committee.
This shyness I retained throughout my stay in England. Even when I paid a social call, the
presence of half a dozen or more people would strike me dumb.
I once went to Ventnor with Sjt. Mazmudar. We stayed there with a vegetarian family. Mr.
Howard, the author of The Ethics of Diet, was also staying at the same watering-place. We met
him, and he invited us to speak at a meeting for the promotion of vegetarianism. I had
ascertained that it was not considered incorrect to read one's speech. I knew that many did so to
express themselves coherently and briefly. To speak ex tempore would have been out of the
question for me. I had therefore written down my speech. I stood up to read it, but could not. My
vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap. Sjt.
Mazmudar had to read it for me. His own speech was of course excellent and was received with
applause. I was ashamed of myself and sad at heart for my incapacity.
My last effort to make a public speech in England was on the eve of my departure for home.
But this time too I only succeeded in making myself ridiculous. I invited my vegetarian friends to
dinner in the Holborn Restaurant referred to in these chapters. 'A vegetarian dinner could be had,'
I said to myself, 'in vegetarian restaurants as a matter of course. But why should it not be
possible in a non-vegetarain restaurant too?' And I arranged with the manager of the Holborn
Restaurant to provide a strictly vegetarian meal. The vegetarians hailed the new experiment with
delight. All dinners are meant for enjoyment, but the West has developed the thing into an art.
They are celebrated with great eclat, music and speeches. And the little dinner party that I gave
was also not unaccompanied by some such display. Speeches, therefore, there had to be. When
my turn for speaking came, I stood up to make a speech. I had with great care thought out one
which would consist of a very few sentences. But I could not proceed beyond the first sentence. I
had read of Addison that he began his maiden speech in the House of Commons, repeating 'I
conceive' three times, and when he could proceed no further, a wag stood up and said, 'The
gentleman conceived thrice but brought forth nothing.' I had thought of making a humorous
speech taking this anecdote as the text. I therefore began with it and stuck there. My memory
entirely failed me and in attempting a humorous speech I made myself ridiculous. 'I thank you,
gentlemen, for having kindly responded to my invitation,' I said abruptly, and sat down.
It was only in South Africa that I got over this shyness, though I never completely overcame it.
It was impossible for me to speak impromptu. I hesitated whenever I had to face strange
audiences, and avoided making a speech whenever I could. Even today I do not think I could or
would even be inclined to keep a meeting of friends engaged in idle talk.
I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has
been no disadvantage whatever. In fact I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my
advantage. My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its
greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words. I have naturally formed the
habit of restraining my thoughts. And I can now give myself the certificate that a thoughtless word
hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my
speech or writing. I have thus been spared many a mishap and waste of time. Experience has
taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. Proneness to
exaggerate, to suppress or modify the truth, wittingly or unwittingly, is a natural weakness of man,
and silence is necessary in order to surmount it. A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in
his speech; he will measure every word. We find so many people impatient to talk. There is no
chairman of a meeting who is not pestered with notes for permission to speak. And whenever the
permission is given, the speaker generally exceeds the time-limit, asks for more time, and keeps
on talking without permission. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world.
It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed
me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.
NEXT :- 19. THE CANKER OF UNTRUTH-