The heart's earnest and
pure desire is always fulfilled. In my own experience I have often seen
this rule verified. Service of the poor has been my heart's desire, and
it has always thrown me amongst the poor and enabled me to identify myself
Although the members of the
Natal Indian Congress included the colonial-born Indians and the clerical
class, the unskilled wage-earners, the indentured labourers, were still
outside its pale. The Congress was not yet theirs. They could not afford
to belong to it by paying the subscription and becoming its members. The
Congress could win their attachment only by serving them. An opportunity
offered itself when neither the Congress nor I was really ready for it.
I had put in scarcely three or four months' practice, and the Congress
also was still in its infancy, when a Tamil man in tattered clothes, head-gear
in hand, two front teeth broken and his mouth bleeding, stood before me
trembling and weeping. He had been heavily belaboured by his master. I
learnt all about him from my clerk, who was a Tamilian. Balasundaram--as
that was the visitor's name--was serving his indenture under a well-known
European resident of Durban. The master, getting angry with him, had lost
self-control, and had beaten Balasundaram severely, breaking two of his
I sent him to a doctor. In those
days only white doctors were available. I wanted a certificate from the
doctor about the nature of the injury Balasundaram had sustained. I secured
the certificate, and straightway took the injured man to the magistrate,
to whom I submitted his affidavit. The magistrate was indignant when he
read it, and issued a summons against the employer.
It was far from my desire to
get the employer punished. I simply wanted Balasundaram to be released
from him. I read the law about indentured labour. If an ordinary servant
left service without giving notice, he was liable to be sued by his master
in a civil court. With the indentured labourer the case was entirely different.
He was liable, in similar circumstances, to be proceeded against in a criminal
court and to be imprisoned on conviction. That is why Sir William Hunter
called the indenture system almost as bad as slavery. Like the slave, the
indentured labourer was the property of his master.
There were only two ways of
releasing Balasundaram: either by getting the Protector of Indentured Labourers
to cancel his indenture or transfer him to someone else, or by getting
Balasundaram's employer to release him. I called on the latter and said
to him: 'I do not want to proceed against you and get you punished. I think
you realize that you have severely beaten the man. I shall be satisfied
if you will transfer the indenture to someone else.' To this he readily
agreed. I next saw the Protector. He also agreed, on condition that I found
a new employer.
So I went off in search of an
employer. He had to be a European, as no Indians could employ indentured
labour. At that time I knew very few Europeans. I met one of them. He very
kindly agreed to take on Balasundaram. I gratefully acknowledged his kindness.
The magistrate convicted Balasundaram's employer, and recorded that he
had undertaken to transfer the indenture to someone else.
Balasundaram's case reached
the ears of every indentured labourer, and I came to be regarded as their
friend. I hailed this connection with delight. A regular stream of indentured
labourers began to pour into my office, and I got the best opportunity
of learning their joys and sorrows.
The echoes of Balasundaram's
case were heard in far-off Madras. Labourers from different parts of the
province who went to Natal on indenture, came to know of this case through
their indentured brethren.
There was nothing extraordinary
in the case itself, but the fact that there was someone in Natal to espouse
their cause and publicly work for them gave the indentured labourer a joyful
surprise and inspired him with hope.
I have said that Balasundaram
entered my office, head-gear in hand. There was a peculiar pathos about
the circumstance, which also showed our humiliation. I have already narrated
the incident when I was asked to take off my turban. A practice had been
forced upon every indentured labourer and every Indian stranger to take
off his head-gear when visiting a European, whether the head-gear were
a cap, a turban, or a scarf wrapped round the head. A salute even with
both hands was not sufficient. Balasundaram thought that he should follow
the practice even with me. This was the first case in my experience. I
felt humiliated and asked him to tie up his scarf. He did so, not without
a certain hesitation, but I could perceive the pleasure on his face.
It has always been a mystery
to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their