Mahatma Gandhi – The shy boy who became a game changer (P1)

 

Being prevented from having the same rights as any other free men or women, because of his skin color. First in South Africa, then in India. That’s the founding problem Mahatma Gandhi faced again and again. Here’s the story of how he overcame it, found his life purpose and helped change the game of the Indian community while doing so. First in South Africa, then in India.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar; a port city located on the south-west coast of India. He was given the surname of Mahatma; which means “Great soul” in Sanskrit, in 1914. Then aged 45, the non-violent resistance movement he started and led for the past eight years had finally made the South African government move back on its will to impose restrictions on the individual rights of the Indian community living on its territory. It wouldn’t be an easy journey for Gandhi, (but one he’d learned much from before heading India to its independence).

THE BOY WHO WAS SHY

Mohandas was the youngest of eight children; 5 girls, 3 boys. His father, Kaba Ghandi, was unlettered but “his rich experience of practical affairs stood him in good stead in the solution of the most intricate questions and in managing hundreds of men.” [1] Something that led him to become the Diwan (or Prime Minister, in Sanskrit) of the prince of Gujarat; the region where Porbandar was located. At the time, India was divided in about 565 princely states. All of them reporting to the British Viceroy since 1858.

Although he was close to the prince, Gandhi’s father “never had any ambition to accumulate riches” [2] and he left very little property to his family when he died in 1885. As Gandhi will describe him, “my father was a lover of his clan, truthful, brave and generous but short-tempered.” [3] The fact that Kaba Gandhi gave much importance to truth and acted as a servant to the local prince – as the role of Diwan somehow implied – influenced Mohandas.

As for his mother, Putlibai, she was a woman with a strong common sense. Well informed about all matters of the state, as Gandhi will write in his autobiography. “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness. She was deeply religious. (…) She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching. Illness was no excuse for relaxing them. (…) To keep two or three consecutive fasts was nothing to her.” [4]

Of all his brothers and sisters, Mohandas developed a very close relationship with Lakshmidas (or Laxmidas, depending of the source); his eldest brother of six years. Lakshmidas eventually helped Mohandas setting his practice as a lawyer, as few years later.

As a child, Mohandas was very shy. Most of the time, he avoided talking or mingling with other kids. “I was even afraid lest (e.g. in case) anyone should poke fun at me”, as he’ll later say. [5] If school books were his best friends, he struggled with learning a few topics; the multiplication tables for instance. One reason might be that “it was a habit with me to forget what I did not like and, to carry out in practice with whatever I liked.” [6] Still, Mohandas managed to win prizes and scholarships once he reached high school. Receiving such rewards didn’t diminish his shyness. Such public recognition was actually unbearable to him. History doesn’t say if he won any prizes in mathematics though.

At age seven, Gandhi’s family moved to Rajkot; the Gujarat capital, where his father could better serve the prince. That period in Rajkot would be important in many ways for Gandhi. As he’ll later write about childhood “Impressions formed at that age strike roots deep into one’s nature.” [7] His wouldn’t be an exception. As key experiences he lived and realizations he made as a kid rooted what later became some of his adulthood’s pillars.

THE FIRST PILLAR: SERVING OTHERS

Gandhi as a teen (Date unknown)
Gandhi as a teen (Date unknown)

Thinking back on his childhood, Gandhi once wrote that “I had learned to carry out the orders of elders, not to scan their actions.” [8] That personality trait – of being of service to others – might have come naturally to Gandhi as a kid but for sure it was deeply inspired by reading two books before he was sixteen. The first book was “Shravana Pitribhakti Nataka”. Shravana being a character in the Indian culture that had blind parents. He devoted his life to serving them and taking care of their wishes. That story made a great impression on Mohandas. Enough so he told himself afterwards, “Here is an example for you to copy.” [9] The second book that inspired Mohandas on this serving path was “Ramayana”. He was about thirteen when he read it. This was a Sanskrit epic poem about different relationships. Its author used it to describe ideal characters like the ideal father, servant, brother, wife and the ideal king. What actually reinforced the young Mohandas’s will to serve is when in 1885, at age sixteen, he nursed his sick father for a while. Kaba Gandhi was bedridden due to a fistula. [10] His situation required more care than his wife and the family’s old servant could both provide. So Mohandas began to change the bandages on his father’s wound, giving him his medicine. He even massaged his father before he went to sleep. All these actions somehow helped Gandhi realize that he was actually providing some relief to his father. A relief that wouldn’t be sufficient to cure Kaba though, as he died of health complications at age sixty-three, in October 1885. Mohandas was then sixteen. Still, serving others actually became one of a few pillars Gandhi would built is life around – first as a lawyer, then a legal counselor and last, as a political leader. All of it to achieve self-realization, as he later wrote. [11] Something that couldn’t be done without seeking truth – in its broadest sense.

THE SECOND PILLAR: THE IMPORTANCE OF TRUTH

Such quest for truth began at a young age too for Gandhi. If his father was a man who gave much importance to truth, as mentioned above, it’s a theatre play; “Harishchandra“, that caught really Mohandas’s imagination as a boy. Seen during the same period he read “Shravana”, the play told the story of the 36th king of the Solar Dynasty; Harishchandra. A character that had two main qualities: the first was that he always kept his word, and the second being that he had never told a lie in his life. Mohandas liked the play so much that he saw it many times. Although he was seeking truth, Gandhi faced a dilemma about telling one when he was fifteen. He knew that telling what he had done would hurt his father. He even anticipated some punishment for it but he never expected what actually happened.

THE THIRD PILLAR: DISCOVERING NON VIOLENCE

About a year before his father died, Gandhi, then fifteen, stole part of a friend’s armlet made of solid gold. That theft became a huge weight for Gandhi to bear. Enough that he resolved not to do it again and confessed the crime to his father. To do so, Mohandas wrote a note to his sick father – telling him about the golden armlet. Instead of hitting or punishing his son, Kaba read the note, cried a little and then tore the note apart. In his autobiography, Gandhi describes how he then reacted: “This was, for me, an object-lesson in Ahimsa (which means ‘compassion’ and ‘not to injure’, in Sanskrit). I could read in it nothing more than a father’s love, but today I know it was pure Ahimsa. When such Ahimsa becomes all-embracing, it transforms everything it touches. There is no limit to its power. This sort of forgiveness was not natural to my father. I had thought that he would be angry, say hard things, and strike his forehead. But he was so wonderfully peaceful, and I believe this was due to my clean confession.” [12] Without not necessarily being conscious about it back then, “having compassion or love for the one at fault in a situation” would become key in the definition of the non-violent resistance approach Gandhi helped define in South Africa, in 1906. Before travelling to the African continent though, Mohandas still had to complete high school and think of what he would do afterward. Attending college? If so, where would it be, to study what?

FROM BOMBAY TO ENGLAND, THEN TO BOMBAY AGAIN

Becoming a public servant like his father and uncle was conceivable for Gandhi. He had graduated from high school at seventeen, in 1887, and was now attending a college in Bhavnagar; at about 110 miles from Rajkot. “Everything was difficult. I could not follow, let alone take interest in the professors’ lectures. It was not fault of theirs.” [13] In the end, the hardship of college got the best out of him. As at the end of the 1st term Mohandas was back home.

Sometime after Gandhi had returned to Rajkot, a family friend suggested Mohandas’ mother that her son could actually go study in England. In doing so, he could come back in three years with a degree. This was a year less than the usual four (4) years college term in India. Go to England to study what exactly? The friend suggested law. Something that would greatly help Gandhi in getting the Diwanship; the position of Prime Minister his father held for long. [14] After his eldest brother, Lakshmidas, brought together and secured the necessary funds to support in British stay, Gandhi began to prepare himself.

Gandhi with wife; Katsurbai (1902)
Gandhi with wife; Katsurbai (1902)

Before heading to England though, Mohandas was requested by his caste-people; the Banias, to meet with them. The Banias was the name given then to the Indian business class. Its families were mostly merchants or traders, like the Gandhis were (historically speaking). From what Mohandas had learned, no Bania ever went to England before. So during the general meeting to which he was summoned, Mohandas was told by the caste’s spokesperson that he couldn’t go abroad, even for studying. If Gandhi decided to go anyway, he would be outcaste. Whoever would support him in any way on his journey would also get the same treatment and be fined. [15] Surprisingly the boy who once “had learned to carry out the orders of elders” was now standing for himself and what he thought to be right. After the meeting, Lakshmidas reassured his younger brother that he still had his approval for wanting to go to England. All this led Mohandas to sail from Bombay to England on September 4th 1888, at age eighteen. In doing so, he was leaving behind a wife of five years and a baby of a few months. (Gandhi having been married at age thirteen by his parents to a girl named Katsurbai whom he knew. Arranged-marriages were already part of Indian customs at the time.)

Gandhi as a lawyer (1906)
Gandhi as a lawyer (1906)

In many ways, studying in England wasn’t just about attending school. Studying took a broader sense through the different experiments and discoveries Mohandas did during his three years stay there. He experimented with food and became a vegetarian by conviction not just habit. With cooking as well; something he didn’t do back home. He also became familiar with different religious faiths; like Theosophy and Christianity. With social interactions too. As being in an unfamiliar environment, he couldn’t just hide in his books. So through his stay in different guest houses in the London area, and a friendly network of Indians already living there, he was able to “get out of his shell” and develop a few friendships that lasted well after he was back to India. He even set up a vegetarian club. The main purpose of his English journey, though, was to become a lawyer. So he did, after his 2nd attempt at the bar examination. On June 11, 1891, at age twenty-one, Gandhi was enrolled in the London High Court as a lawyer. Even if he met with an experienced English lawyer; Frederic Pincutt, to be reassured in his pessimism, Mohandas sailed back to Bombay on June 12th. His head still full of self-doubt. As he’ll write a few years later, “notwithstanding my study (in law, in England) there was no end to my helplessness fear. I did not feel myself qualified to practice law.” [16] He had learned the law but hadn’t practiced it. Even more, he knew nothing about the India law, neither of the country’s history.

Sad news was awaiting Gandhi when he landed in India that July. His mother had died in January. His eldest brother; Lakshmidas, held back the news. Not wanting to take Mohandas’s mind off his goal in England. The grief was greater than for his father’s death. It wouldn’t be his last one. As during the first months he was back home, his somehow “idealistic vision” of truth and serving others collided with the realities of the Indian judicial system. Games of politics or influences, commission to be paid – out of your fees – to the person who referred a client to you, etc.. Yet, Mohandas tried to make his way in that system, while learning Indian law as well. After about six months of piling bills, he called it quit and moved back to Rajkot. The fact that Gandhi “had not the courage to conduct a case” because, as he said, “I was helpless beyond words” might explain his decision. [17] How can a lawyer be one if he can’t conduct a case?

WHEN BEING HOME MAKES YOU EXASPERATED

For a while, Mohandas’s situation improved in Rajkot. The reason being that Lakshmidas – who was himself a lawyer and partner in a firm – was able to send his younger brother different cases too small for the firm to take care. So drafting applications and memorials became most of the work Gandhi had to do for his clients. It somehow suited him, since he couldn’t get pass his shyness yet. Financially the situation was improving too, but with the expenses related to his practice and having to support his family (a wife and kid), it still wasn’t enough. As he’ll say about the period that followed his return to India: “I was exasperated.” [18]

Gandhi had been in Rajkot for a less than a year when a contact of Lakshmidas sent him an offer. “We have business in South Africa. Ours is a big firm, and we have a big case there in the court, our claim being forty thousand pounds. It has been going on for a long time. We have engaged the services of the best vakils and barristers (e.g. officials and lawyers). If you sent your brother there, he would be able to instruct our counsel better than ourselves. And he would have the advantage of seeing a new part of the world, and on making new acquaintances.” [19]

The firm behind such offer was Dada Abdulla & Co; an important company in India. After meeting with Sheth Abdul Akim – who was the Indian partner at Dada – Gandhi realized that “this was hardly going there as a barrister (e.g. lawyer). It was going (to South Africa) as a servant of the firm. But I wanted somehow to leave India. There was also the tempting opportunity of seeing a new country, and of having new experience. Also I could send one hundred and five pounds (that was attached to this “one-year contract” work offer) to my brother and help in (paying for) the expenses of the household. I closed with the offer without any haggling and got ready to go to South Africa.” [20]

This time, going abroad meant leaving his wife, again, but also two kids now. The youngest being born after Gandhi returned home from England. Still, his decision was made and in April 1893, at age 23, he sailed for Durban, South Africa. In doing so, Gandhi expected to only be serving Dada’s managers. He wound up serving more people than that. Way more. How many exactly? That’s what you’ll learn in the second of this two-part series.

Until then, have you ever found yourself in a professional environment where you felt you didn’t belong? When did it happened and what way out did you find?

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_ _ _ Sources _ _ _ _ _ _

– “Gandhi, An Autobiography. The Story of My Experiments With Truth” by Mahatma Gandhi (Fitzhenry & Whiteside Publication, 2011)

– “Satyagraha in South Africa – The Selected Work of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 2” by Mahatma Gandhi (Navajivan Trust, 1968)