12. SEEKING TOUCH WITH INDIANS :
THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH
by Mohandas K. Gandhi
Before writing further about Christian contacts, I must record other experiences of the same
Sheth Tyeb Haji Khan Muhammad had in Pretoria the same position as was enjoyed by Dada
Abdulla in Natal. There was no public movement that could be conducted without him. I made his
acquaintance the very first week, and told him of my intention to get in touch with every Indian in
Pretoria. I expressed a desire to study the conditions of Indians there, and asked for his help in
my work, which he gladly agreed to give.
My first step was to call a meeting of all the Indians in Pretoria and to present to them a picture
of their condition in the Transvaal. The meeting was held at the house of Sheth Haji Muhammad
Haji Joosab, to whom I had a letter of introduction. It was principally attended by Meman
merchants, though there was a sprinkling of Hindus as well. The Hindu population in Pretoria
was, as a matter of fact, very small.
My speech at this meeting may be said to have been the first public speech in my life. I went
fairly prepared with my subject, which was about observing truthfulness in business. I had always
heard the merchants say that truth was not possible in business. I did not think so then, nor do I
now. Even today there are merchant friends who contend that truth is inconsistent with business.
Business, they say, is a very practical affair, and truth a matter of religion; and they argue that
practical affairs are one thing, while religion is quite another. Pure truth, they hold, is out of the
question in business, one can speak it only so far as is suitable. I strongly contested the position
in my speech, and awakened the merchants to a sense of their duty, which was two-fold. Their
responsibility to be truthful was all the greater in a foreign land, because the conduct of a few
Indians was the measure of that of the millions of their fellow-countrymen.
I had found our peoples' habits to be insanitary, as compared with those of the Englishmen
around them, and drew their attention on it. I laid stress on the necessity of forgetting all
distinctions such as Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Punjabis,
Sindhis, Kachchhis, Suratis, and so on.
I suggested, in conclusion, the formation of an association to make representations to the
authorities concerned in respect of the hardships of the Indian settlers, and offered to place as its
disposal as much of my time and service as was possible.
I saw that I made a considerable impression on the meeting.
My speech was followed by discussion. Some offered to supply me with facts. I felt
encouraged. I saw that very few amongst my audience knew English. As I felt that knowledge of
English would be useful in that country, I advised those who had leisure to learn English. I told
them that it was possible to learn a language even at an advanced age, and cited cases of people
who had done so. I undertook, besides, to teach a class, if one was started, or personally to
instruct individuals desiring to learn the language.
The class was not started, but three young men expressed their readiness to learn at their
convenience, and on condition that I went to their places to teach them. Of these, two were
Musalmans--one of them a barber and the other a clerk--and the third was a Hindu, a petty
shopkeeper. I agreed to suit them all. I had no misgivings regarding my capacity to teach. My
pupils might become tired, but not I. Sometimes it happened that I would go to their places, only
to find them engaged in their business. But I did not lose patience. None of the three desired a
deep study of English, but two may be said to have made fairly good progress in about eight
months. Two learnt enough to keep accounts and write ordinary business letters. The barber's
ambition was confined to acquiring just enough English for dealing with his customers. As a result
of their studies, two of the pupils were equipped for making a fair income.
I was satisfied with the result of the meeting. It was decided to hold such meetings, as far as I
remember, once a week, or maybe once a month. These were held more or less regularly, and
on these occasions there was a free exchange of ideas. The result was that there was now in
Pretoria no Indian I did not know, or whose condition I was not acquainted with. This prompted
me in turn to make the acquaintance of the British Agent in Pretoria, Mr. Jacobus de Wet. He had
sympathy for the Indians, but he had very little influence. However, he agreed to help us as best
he could, and invited me to meet him whenever I wished.
I now communicated with the railway authorities and told them that, even under their own
regulations, the disabilities about travelling under which the Indians laboured could not be
justified. I got a letter in reply to the effect that first and second class tickets would be issued to
Indians who were properly dressed. This was far from giving adequate relief, as it rested with the
station master to decide who was 'properly dressed'.
The British Agent showed me some papers dealing with Indian affairs. Tyeb Sheth had also
given me similar papers. I learnt from them how cruelly the Indians were hounded out from the
Orange Free State.
In short, my stay in Pretoria enabled me to make a deep study of the social, economic, and
political condition of the Indians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. I had no idea that
this study was to be of invaluable service to me in the future. For I had thought of returning home
by the end of the year, or even earlier, if the case was finished before the year was out.
But God disposed otherwise.
NEXT : 13. WHAT IT IS TO BE A 'COOLIE' :