7. SOME EXPERIENCES
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 nature suspicious.
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 religious topics.
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
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
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 good-bye 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
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.