7. SOME EXPERIENCES :
THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH
by Mohandas K. Gandhi
The port of Natal is Durban, also known as Port Natal. Abdulla Sheth was there to receive me.
As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to meet their friends, I
observed that the Indians were not held in much respect. I could not fail to notice a sort of
snobbishness about the manner in which those who knew Abdulla Sheth behaved towards him,
and it stung me. Abdulla Sheth had got used to it. Those who looked at me did so with a certain
amount of curiosity. My dress marked me out from other Indians. I had a frock-coat and a turban,
an imitation of the Bengal pugree.
I was taken to the firm's quarters and shown into the room set apart for me, next to Abdulla
Sheth's. He did not understand me. I could not understand him. He read the papers his brother
had sent through me, and felt more puzzled. He thought his brother had sent him a white
elephant. My style of dress and living struck him as being expensive like that of the Europeans.
There was no particular work then which could be given me. Their case was going on in the
Transvaal. There was no meaning in sending me there immediately. And how far could he trust
my ability and honesty? He would not be in Pretoria to watch me. The defendants were in
Pretoria, and for aught he knew they might bring undue influence to bear on me. And if work in
connection with the case in question was not to be entrusted to me, what work could I be given to
do, as all other work could be done much better by his clerks? The clerks could be brought to
book, if they did wrong. Could I be, if I also happened to err? So if no work in connection with the
case could be given me, I should have to be kept for nothing.
Abdulla Sheth was practically unlettered, but he had a rich fund of experience. He had an
acute intellect and was conscious of it. By practice he had picked up just sufficient English for
conversational purposes, but that served him for carrying on all his business, whether it was
dealing with Bank Managers and European merchants or explaining his case to his counsel. The
Indians held him in very high esteem. His firm was then the biggest, or at any rate one of the
biggest, of the Indian firms. With all these advantages he had one disadvantage--he was by
He was proud of Islam and loved to discourse on Islamic philosophy. Though he did not know
Arabic, his acquaintance with the Holy Koran and Islamic literature in general was fairly good.
Illustrations he had in plenty, always ready at hand. Contact with him gave me a fair amount of
practical knowledge of Islam. When we came closer to each other, we had long discussions on
On the second or third day of [=after] my arrival, he took me to see the Durban court. There he
introduced me to several people, and seated me next to his attorney. The magistrate kept staring
at me, and finally asked me to take off my turban. This I refused to do, and left the court.
So here too there was fighting in store for me.
Abdulla Sheth explained to me why some Indians were required to take off their turbans. Those
wearing the Musalman costume might, he said, keep their turbans on, but the other Indians on
entering a court had to take theirs off as a rule.
I must enter into some details to make this nice [=subtle] distinction intelligible. In the course of
these two or three days I could see that the Indians were divided into different groups. One was
that of Musalman merchants, who would call themselves 'Arabs'. Another was that of Hindu, and
yet another of Parsi, clerks. The Hindu clerks were neither here nor there, unless they cast in
their lot with the 'Arabs'. The Parsi clerks would call themselves Persians. These three classes
had some social relations with one another. But by far the largest class was that composed of
Tamil, Telugu, and North Indian indentured and freed labourers. The indentured labourers were
those who went to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years, and came to be known there
as girmitiyas from girmit, which was the corrupt form of the English word 'agreement'. The other
three classes had none but business relations with this class. Englishmen called them 'coolies',
and as the majority of Indians belonged to the labouring class, all Indians were called 'coolies,' or
'samis'. Sami is a Tamil suffix occurring after many Tamil names, and it is nothing else than the
Sanksrit Swami, meaning a master. Whenever, therefore, an Indian resented being addressed as
a sami and had enough wit in him, he would try to return the compliment in this wise: 'You may
call me sami, but you forget that sami means a master. I am not your master!' Some Englishmen
would wince at this, while others would get angry, swear at the Indian, and if there was a chance,
would even belabour him; for 'sami' to him [=them] was nothing better than a term of contempt.
To interpret it to mean a master amounted to an insult!
I was hence known as a 'coolie barrister'. The merchants were known as 'coolie merchants'.
The original meaning of the word 'coolie' was thus forgotten, and it became a common appellation
for all Indians. The Musalman merchant would resent this and say: 'I am not a coolie. I am an
Arab,' or 'I am a merchant,' and the Englishman, if courteous, would apologize to him.
The question of wearing the turban had a great importance in this state of things. Being obliged
to take off one's Indian turban would be pocketing an insult. So I thought I had better bid goodbye
to the Indian turban and begin wearing an English hat, which would save me from the insult
and the unpleasant controversy.
But Abdulla Sheth disapproved of the idea. He said, 'If you do anything of the kind, it will have
a very bad effect. You will compromise those insisting on wearing Indian turbans. And an Indian
turban sits well on your head. If you wear an English hat, you will pass for a waiter.'
There was practical wisdom, patriotism, and a little bit of narrowness in this advice. The
wisdom was apparent, and he would not have insisted on the Indian turban except out of
patriotism; the slighting reference to the waiter betrayed a kind of narrowness. Amongst the
indentured Indians there were three classes--Hindus, Musalmans, and Christians. The last were
the children of indentured Indians who became converts to Christianity. Even in 1893 their
number was large. They wore the English costume, and the majority of them earned their living
by service as waiters in hotels. Abdulla Sheth's criticism of the English hat was with reference to
this class. It was considered degrading to serve as a waiter in a hotel. The belief persists even
today among many.
On the whole I liked Abdulla Sheth's advice. I wrote to the press about the incident and
defended the wearing of my turban in the court. The question was very much discussed in the
papers, which described me as an 'unwelcome visitor'. Thus the incident gave me an unexpected
advertisement in South Africa within a few days of my arrival there. Some supported me, while
others severely criticized my temerity.
My turban stayed with me practically until the end of my stay in South Africa. When and why I
left off wearing any head-dress at all in South Africa, we shall see later.
NEXT : 8. ON THE WAY TO PRETORIA