9. MORE HARDSHIPS
The train reached Charlestown
in the morning. There was no railway, in those days, between Charlestown
and Johannesburg, but only a stage-coach, which halted at Standerton for
the night en route. I possessed a ticket for the coach, which was
not cancelled by the break of the journey at Maritzburg for a day; besides,
Abdulla Sheth had sent a wire to the coach agent at Charlestown.
But the agent only needed a
pretext for putting me off, and so, when he discovered me to be a stranger,
he said, 'Your ticket is cancelled.' I gave him the proper reply. The reason
at the back of his mind was not want of accommodation, but quite another.
Passengers had to be accommodated inside the coach, but as I was regarded
as a 'coolie' and looked a stranger, it would be proper, thought the 'leader',
as the white man in charge of the coach was called, not to seat me with
the white passengers. There were seats on either side of the coachbox.
The leader sat on one of these as a rule. Today he sat inside and gave
me his seat. I knew it was sheer injustice and an insult, but I thought
it better to pocket it. I could not have forced myself inside, and if I
had raised a protest, the coach would have gone off without me. This would
have meant the loss of another day, and Heaven only knows what would have
happened the next day. So, much as I fretted within myself, I prudently
sat next to the coachman.
At about three o'clock the coach
reached Pardekoph. Now the leader desired to sit where I was seated, as
he wanted to smoke and possibly to have some fresh air. So he took a piece
of dirty sack-cloth from the driver, spread it on the footboard and, addressing
me, said, 'Sami, you sit on this, I want to sit near the driver.'
The insult was more than I could bear. In fear and trembling I said to
him, 'It was you who seated me here, though I should have been accommodated
inside. I put up with the insult. Now that you want to sit outside and
smoke, you would have me sit at your feet. I will not do so, but I am prepared
to sit inside.'
As I was struggling through
these sentences, the man came down upon me and began heavily to box my
ears. He seized me by the arm and tried to drag me down. I clung to the
brass rails of the coachbox and was determined to keep my hold even at
the risk of breaking my wristbones. The passengers were witnessing the
scene--the man swearing at me, dragging and belabouring me, and I remaining
still. He was strong and I was weak. Some of the passengers were moved
to pity and exclaimed: 'Man, let him alone. Don't beat him. He is not to
blame. He is right. If he can't stay there, let him come and sit with us.'
'No fear,' cried the man, but he seemed somewhat crestfallen and stopped
beating me. He let go my arm, swore at me a little more, and asking the
Hottentot servant who was sitting on the other side of the coachbox to
sit on the footboard, took the seat so vacated.
The passengers took their seats
and, the whistle given, the coach rattled away. My heart was beating fast
within my breast and I was wondering whether I should ever reach my destination
alive. The man cast an angry look at me now and then and, pointing his
finger at me, growled: 'Take care, let me once get to Standerton and I
shall show you what I do.' I sat speechless and prayed to God to help me.
After dark we reached Standerton
and I heaved a sigh of relief on seeing some Indian faces. As soon as I
got down, these friends said: 'We are here to receive you and take you
to Isa Sheth's shop. We have had a telegram from Dada Abdulla.' I was very
glad, and we went to Sheth Isa Haji Sumar's shop. The Sheth and his clerks
gathered round me. I told them all that I had gone through. They were very
sorry to hear it and comforted me by relating to me their own bitter experiences.
I wanted to inform the agent
of the Coach Company of the whole affair. So I wrote him a letter, narrating
everything that had happened, and drawing his attention to the threat his
man had held out. I also asked for an assurance that he would accommodate
me with the other passengers inside the coach when we started the next
morning. To which the agent replied to this effect: 'From Standerton we
have a bigger coach with different men in charge. The man complained of
will not be there tomorrow, and you will have a seat with the other passengers.'
This somewhat relieved me. I had, of course, no intention of proceeding
against the man who had assaulted me, and so the chapter of the assault
In the morning Isa Sheth's man
took me to the coach, I got a good seat and reached Johannesburg quite
safely that night.
Standerton is a small village
and Johannesburg a big city. Abdulla Sheth had wired to Johannesburg also,
and given me the name and address of Muhammad Kasam Kamruddin's firm there.
Their man had come to receive me at the stage, but neither did I see him
nor did he recognize me. So I decided to go to a hotel. I knew the names
of several. Taking a cab I asked to be driven to the Grand National Hotel.
I saw the manager and asked for a room. He eyed me for a moment, and politely
saying, 'I am very sorry, we are full up,' bade me good-bye. So I asked
the cabman to drive to Muhammad Kasam Kamruddin's shop. Here I found Abdul
Gani Sheth expecting me, and he gave me a cordial greeting. He had a hearty
laugh over the story of my experience at the hotel. 'How ever did you expect
to be admitted to a hotel?' he said.
'Why not?' I asked.
'You will come to know after
you have stayed here a few days.' said he. 'Only we can live in a land
like this, because, for making money, we do not mind pocketing insults,
and here we are.' With this he narrated to me the story of the hardships
of Indians in South Africa.
Of Sheth Abdul Gani we shall
know more as we proceed.
He said: 'This country is not
for men like you. Look now, you have to go to Pretoria tomorrow. You will
to travel third class. Conditions in the Transvaal are worse than in Natal.
First and second class tickets are never issued to Indians.'
'You cannot have made persistent
efforts in this direction.'
'We have sent representations,
but I confess our own men too do not want as a rule to travel first or
I sent for the railway regulations
and read them. There was a loophole. The language of the old Transvaal
enactments was not very exact or precise; that of the railway regulations
was even less so.
I said to the Sheth: 'I wish
to go first class, and if I cannot, I shall prefer to take a cab to Pretoria,
a matter of only thirty-seven miles.'
Sheth Abdul Gani drew my attention
to the extra time and money this would mean, but agreed to my proposal
to travel first, and accordingly we sent a note to the Station Master.
I mentioned in my note that I was a barrister and that I always travelled
first. I also stated in the letter that I needed to reach Pretoria as early
as possible, that as there was no time to await his reply I would receive
it in person at the station, and that I should expect to get a first class
ticket. There was of course a purpose behind asking for the reply in person.
I thought that if the station master gave a written reply, he would certainly
say 'no', especially because he would have his own notion of a 'coolie'
barrister. I would therefore appear before him in faultless English dress,
talk to him and possibly persuade him to issue a first class ticket. So
I went to the station in a frock-coat and necktie, placed a sovereign for
my fare on the counter, and asked for a first class ticket.
'You sent me that note?' he
'That is so. I shall be much
obliged if you will give me a ticket. I must reach Pretoria today.'
He smiled and, moved to pity,
said: 'I am not a Transvaaler. I am a Hollander. I appreciate your feelings,
and you have my sympathy. I do want to give you a ticket--on one condition,
however, that, if the guard should ask you to shift to the third class,
you will not involve me in the affair, by which I mean that you should
not proceed against the Railway Company. I wish you a safe journey. I can
see you are a gentleman.'
With these words he booked the
ticket. I thanked him and gave him the necessary assurance.
Sheth Abdul Gani had come to
see me off at the station. The incident gave him an agreeable surprise,
but he warned me, saying: 'I shall be thankful if you reach Pretoria all
right. I am afraid the guard will not leave you in peace in the first class,
and even if he does, the passengers will not.'
I took my seat in a first class
compartment, and the train started. At Germiston the guard came to examine
the tickets. He was angry to find me there, and signalled to me with his
finger to go to the third class. I showed him my first class ticket. 'That
doesn't matter,' said he, 'remove to the third class.'
There was only one English passenger
in the compartment. He took the guard to task. 'What do you mean by troubling
the gentleman?' he said. 'Don't you see he has a first class ticket? I
do not mind in the least his travelling with me.' Addressing me, he said,
'You should make yourself comfortable where you are.'
The guard muttered: 'If you
want to travel with a coolie, what do I care?' and went away.
At about eight o'clock in the
evening the train reached Pretoria.