Saturday, December 11, 2010

What would have Gandhi learnt in Pietermaritzburg?

I went to Saaku! - the walk against corruption today. Had to listen to a terribly boring speech by Lok Satta leader Jaiprakash Narayan. I will some day write a post on "Why Lok Satta is a joke", but lets discuss something else today.

Jaiprakash said (i paraphrase), "Gandhi was more motivated by his insult at Maritzburg" than perhaps "if he had been made to pay a bribe for his daughter's birth certificate". (aside: Gandhi had 4 sons).

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I decided to check what happened in the infamous train incident and referred to my copy of The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The Maritzburg incident occurs in Vol 1 - Autobiography, Part II, section VII titled "Some Experiences".

I will have to read a lot more to decide, if Maritzburg was such an important event in Gandhi's life. But from his description, it doesn't seem so. Gandhi mentions that he was already known as a "coolie barrister" and that he had thought of abandoning his Indian Turban in favor of a hat.

Abdullah Sheth had persuaded him to wear the turban in solidarity with other Indians who wore it with pride and also becos he'll look like a waiter with his hat. Gandhi writes that he didn't like Sheth's reason of "looking like a waiter" becos he didn't think that was shameful. He persisted with his turban.

Now to the Maritzburg incident. He was traveling by train from Durban -> Maritzburg -> Charlestown -> stage coach to Johannesburg with halt in Standerton -> Pretoria.

Gandhi had traveled from Durban first class. He mentions nobody objected to it in Durban. A guard threw him out in Maritzburg after a white passenger complained. Gandhi telegrammed the Railway Company official who made arrangements for his further travel to Charlestown. Gandhi seems to have been more insulted in the stage coach with first being made to sit atop instead of inside the coach. Gandhi mentions this was an insult but didn't protest.

Later he was asked to sit on the footboard so that the coach leader can come outside and smoke. Gandhi now refused and many white passengers supported him. He continued to ride atop. At Standerton, Gandhi again protested to the stagecoach management who corrected the situation after the night halt. But for the night stay, the local hotel told Gandhi that it was "full". He stayed with an acquaintance.

From Johannesburg, Gandhi wanted to travel first class to Pretoria. So he wrote a letter to the Railway Company official mentioning he was a barrister and later met the official wearing a coat, looking "English". The official was greatly supportive of Gandhi's right to travel first class but requested that the company be not dragged in, if a guard throws Gandhi out of first class. Infact, the guard in the train did ask Gandhi to go to third class. But was given a severe dressing down by a fellow white passenger who insisted that Gandhi will travel first class with him.

After reaching Pretoria, Gandhi needed a room. A problem but an African American cab driver helped by taking him to one Johnston's Family Hotel. Mr. Johnston again was glad to accommodate but requested Gandhi to have his dinner in the room and not with other guests in the dinner hall. Gandhi agreed. But in a few minutes Johnston came to the room, apologized profusely and said that, he had spoken to other white guests who were happy to have Gandhi join them for dinner. Gandhi mentions he enjoyed the dinner that night.

*****

Now the recurring theme is,

1. Gandhi's clothes had wrought more injustice by reminding people of his color.

2. It was lower level employees (guards, managers) who mis-behaved. But most business owners and white passengers treated him with respect. Some white passengers even protested against his mistreatment.

I will be surprised if the Mahatma had not understood the phenomenon. Lok Satta leader Jaiprakash Narayan should perhaps read more and talk (please!) less.

*****

ps1: Last Sunday morning between 5 and 6 AM, I was shooed out of three big hotels in Hanamkonda (Warangal) becos, the handlers perhaps didn't think that I could afford to stay there. Before leaving for Warangal, I had declined an offer to stay at the Govt Circuit House as the District Collector's guest. "I can easily find a place", I had said.

ps2: Its very common for a 'colored' 'young' man like me to be treated with contempt by Indian shopkeepers. By both employees and business owners. Ask me, I have shopped alone all my life. But even minimum wage earning employees in the US stores, always treated me with respect.

ps3: Having stopped listening to Jaiprakash Narayan today, I could have given my first ever media interview on behalf of Smartvote. "Could have" becos, after listening to me for few moments, she said "can I speak to someone other than you?". Grrr!

2 comments:

NetRoY said...

1. sorry for not being able to make it to the walk.. had a bad early morning.

2. Indians are the f**king most colour biased people i've ever met.. the only people i hear talking about skin colour are indians... no to mention that i keep getting "marry a fair girl" from my family. ....

3. I still remember getting denied a room at cochin and khajuraho .... and i'm much fairer than you are... do they expect people to look as white as milk or something?

4. Start-Up Idea : start a new fairness cream with caption "AS FAIR AS A ENGREZI SAHIB" ... there is still enough market left to capture ... and even more sheepish idiots left to be convinced that low-melanin === Sucess ...
why else would all these prestigious cosmetic companies be jumping in the "Fairness-Cream" market ..???

5. I'm getting you a tube of "Fair n Handsome" soon ... Lets see the difference ... u never know.. u might become a Kannada super star overnight ... :P

balaji said...

lots of lols!

kochi, huh? i'm surprised. keralites like tamils snap instead of speaking. hotels, some of it is their occupational hazard. for instance mahak and i were denied rooms in kolkata becos, we didn't have any luggage with us. they suspected prostitution or worse :-)

and, marry that politicians daughter and fund my future party :-)