8. ON THE WAY TO PRETORIA
I soon came in contact
with the Christian Indians living in Durban. The Court Interpreter, Mr.
Paul, was a Roman Catholic. I made his acquaintance, as also that of the
late Mr. Subhan Godfrey, then a teacher under the Protestant Mission, and
father of Mr. James Godfrey, who as a member of the South African Deputation
visited India in 1924. I likewise met the late Parsi Rustomji and the late
Adamji Miyakhan about the same time. All these friends, who up to then
had never met one another except on business, came ultimately into close
contact, as we shall see later.
Whilst I was thus widening the
circle of my acquaintance, the firm received a letter from their lawyer
saying that preparations should be made for the case, and that Abdulla
Sheth should go to Pretoria himself or send a representative.
Abdulla Sheth gave me this letter
to read, and asked me if I would go to Pretoria. 'I can only say after
I have understood the case from you,' said I. 'At present I am at a loss
to know what I have to do there.' He thereupon asked his clerks to explain
the case to me.
As I began to study the case,
I felt as though I ought to begin from the A B C of the subject. During
the few days I had had at Zanzibar, I had been to the court to see the
work there. A Parsi lawyer was examining a witness and asking him questions
regarding credit and debit entries in account books. It was all Greek to
me. Book-keeping I had learnt neither at school nor during my stay in England.
And the case for which I had come to South Africa was mainly about accounts.
Only one who knew accounts could understand and explain it. The clerk went
on talking about this debited and that credited, and I felt more and more
confused. I did not know what a P. Note meant. I failed to find the word
in the dictionary. I revealed my ignorance to the clerk, and learnt from
him that a P. Note meant a promissory note. I purchased a book on book-keeping
and studied it. That gave me some confidence. I understood the case. I
saw that Abdulla Sheth, who did not know how to keep accounts, had so much
practical knowledge that he could quickly solve intricacies of book-keeping.
I told him that I was prepared to go to Pretoria.
'Where will you put up?' asked
'Wherever you want me to,' said
'Then I shall write to our lawyer.
He will arrange for your lodgings. I shall also write to my Meman friends
there, but I would not advise you to stay with them. The other party has
great influence in Pretoria. Should any one of them manage to read our
private correspondence, it might do us much harm. The more you avoid familiarity
with them, the better for us.'
'I shall stay where your lawyer
puts me up, or I shall find out independent lodgings. Pray don't worry.
Not a soul shall know anything that is confidential between us. But I do
intend cultivating the acquaintance of the other party. I should like to
be friends with them. I would try, if possible, to settle the case out
of court. After all, Tyeb Sheth is a relative of yours.'
Sheth Tyeb Haji Khan Muhammad
was a near relative of Abdulla Sheth.
The mention of a probable settlement
somewhat startled the Sheth, I could see. But I had already been six or
seven days in Durban, and we now knew and understood each other. I was
no longer a 'white elephant'. So he said:
'Y. . . es, I see. There would
be nothing better than a settlement out of court. But we are all relatives
and know one another very well indeed. Tyeb Sheth is not a man to consent
to a settlement easily. With the slightest unwariness on our part, he would
screw all sorts of things out of us, and do us down in the end. So please
think twice before you do anything.'
'Don't be anxious about that,'
said I. 'I need not talk to Tyeb Sheth, or for that matter to anyone else,
about the case. I would only suggest to him to come to an understanding,
and so save a lot of unnecessary litigation.'
On the seventh or eighth day
after my arrival, I left Durban. A first class seat was booked for me.
It was usual there to pay five shillings extra, if one needed a bedding.
Abdulla Sheth insisted that I should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy
and pride and with a view to saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla
Sheth warned me. 'Look, now,' said he 'this is a different country from
India. Thank God, we have enough and to spare. Please do not stint yourself
in anything that you may need.'
I thanked him and asked him
not to be anxious.
The train reached Maritzburg,
the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. Beddings used to be provided at this
station. A railway servant came and asked me if I wanted one. 'No,' said
I, 'I have one with me.' He went away. But a passenger came next, and looked
me up and down. He saw that I was a 'coloured' man. This disturbed him.
Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept
quiet, when another official came to me and said, 'Come along, you must
go to the van compartment.'
'But I have a first class ticket,'
'That doesn't matter,' rejoined
the other. 'I tell you, you must go to the van compartment.'
'I tell you, I was permitted
to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it.'
'No, you won't,' said the official.
'You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police
constable to push you out.'
'Yes, you may. I refuse to get
The constable came. He took
me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out. I refused
to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat
in the waiting room, keeping my hand-bag with me, and leaving the other
luggage where it was. The railway authorities had taken charge of it.
It was winter, and winter in
the higher regions of South Africa is severely cold. Maritzburg being at
a high altitude, the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat was in my
luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again,
so I sat and shivered. There was no light in the room. A passenger came
in at about midnight and possibly wanted to talk to me. But I was in no
mood to talk.
I began to think of my duty.
Should I fight for my rights, or go back to India, or should I go on to
Pretoria without minding the insults and return to India after finishing
the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling
my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficia--only
a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible,
to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for
wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the
removal of the colour prejudice.
So I decided to take the next
available train to Pretoria.
The following morning I sent
a long telegram to the General Manager of the Railway and also informed
Abdulla Sheth, who immediately met the General Manager. The Manager justified
the conduct of the railway authorities, but informed him that he had already
instructed the Station Master to see that I reached my destination safely.
Abdulla Sheth wired to the Indian merchants in Maritzburg and to friends
in other places to meet me and look after me. The merchants came to see
me at the station and tried to comfort me by narrating their own hardships
and explaining that what had happened to me was nothing unusual. They also
said that Indians travelling first or second class had to expect trouble
from railway officials and white passengers. The day was thus spent in
listening to these tales of woe. The evening train arrived. There was a
reserved berth for me. I now purchased at Maritzburg the bedding ticket
I had refused to book at Durban.
The train took me to Charlestown.