“Something wrong? Any bad news?” he asked.
The brother nodded and told him of the death of their mother.
“It was during your exams a few weeks ago. We did not want to disturb you,” said the brother.
The news was a terrible shock for Gandhi who wanted to let Putlibai know of how he had kept his vows to not drink alcohol or eat meat.
Gandhi started practice as a lawyer in Rajkot, but he was deeply disgusted at the greed and honesty of many of his fellow professionals.
After some time, he got an offer to work in South Africa from Dada Abdulla & Co who owned big business concerns there. He was to be a legal adviser to the firm which had filed a lawsuit against another company seeking damages of 400,000 dollars. Gandhi was hired because he spoke English well and knew English law well. His services were required for one year and the company promised him a handsome salary and first class return fare.
The opportunity to see a new country and new people was indeed very exciting and Gandhi accepted the offer. It was painful to part from Kasturbai and Harilal, but he was keen to go. In April 1893 he left Bombay for South Africa. He reached the port of Natal at the end of May 1893. In South Africa, he noticed that Indians were treated with little respect. They were called ‘Coolies’. Within a week of his arrival, he visited the court with Abdulla Seth of Dada Abdulla & Co. No sooner had he sat down that the magistrate pointed his plump finger at him. “You must remove your turban,” he said sternly. Gandhi was surprised. He looked around. There were several Muslim and Parsi men wearing turbans. He could not understand why he was being singled out.
“Sir,” he replied. “I see no reason why I should remove my turban. I refuse to do so.” When the magistrate insisted that he remove his turban, Gandhi walked out of the court. Abdulla Seth ran after him and caught him by the arm. “You don’t understand,” he said. “These white people consider Indians inferior and address them as “coolie” or “sami.” Parsis and Muslims are allowed to wear turbans as the turban is thought to have religious significance.” “The magistrate insulted me,” Gandhi said angrily. “Any such rule is an insult to a free man. I shall write at once to the Durban Press to protest such insulting rules.” And Gandhi did write. The letter was published and it led to unexpected debate and discussion. At the same time, some other papers described Gandhi as a troublemaker and unwelcome visitor.
After a week in Durban, he left for Pretoria to attend to the case for which he was engaged. With a first class ticket, he boarded the train. At the next stop, an Englishman got into the compartment. He was travelling in a train to Pretoria, in a first class compartment.
He looked at Gandhi with contempt and called the conductor. “Take this coolie out and put him in a lower class!” he said. The conductor turned to gandhi and said, “Hey Sami, Come along with me to the next compartment.”
“No I will not,” said Gandhi. “I was sold a first class ticket and I have every right to be here.”
The conductor called a policeman who pushed him out with his bag and baggage. The train left. Gandhi spent the night shivering in the cold, but he did not touch his luggage.
This incident changed the whole course of his life. He decided to fight all such injustices. He sent a note of protest to the general manager of the railways, but the official only supported the rail employees.
More trouble was still in store for him. Next morning, he went to Charlestown by train. He had now to travel by a stagecoach to Johannesburg, but he was not allowed to sit inside the coach with white passengers. To avoid confrontation Gandhi sat outside on the coach-box behind the coachman. After some time the conductor asked him to sit on a dirty sack on the step below. Gandhi refused. The conductor began to pull him down and beat him up. At this time, some of the passengers came to Gandhi’s rescue and he was allowed to sit with them. Gandhi reached Johannesburg the next night, quite shaken by the experiences on the way. He had the address of a Muslim merchant’s house, where he spent the night.
The next day he bought a first class ticket and continued his train journey to Pretoria. The only other passenger in the compartment was a well-dressed Englishman. A little later, a conductor entered and Gandhi quickly showed him the ticket. “Your ticket does not matter,” growled the conductor. “Go to the third class at once.” Before Gandhi could reply, the Englishman flung down the newspaper and said, “Why are you harassing this gentleman? His ticket gives him a right to be here.” And then turning to Gandhi, he said, “Make yourself comfortable just where you are, young man.”
Thanking him warmly, Gandhi settled down with a book.
It was late in the evening when the train pulled into Pretoria. He stayed at a hotel that night and moved into a lodge the next day. There he began to study the Abdulla lawsuit. Even while he was working on it, he found time to call a meeting of the Indians in Pretoria.
— To be Continued
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