By now I had been three
years in South Africa. I had got to know the people, and they had got to
know me. In 1896 I asked permission to go home for six months, for I saw
that I was in for a long stay there. I had established a fairly good practice,
and could see that people felt the need of my presence. So I made up my
mind to go home, fetch my wife and children, and then return and settle
out there. I also saw that if I went home, I might be able to do there
some public work, by educating public opinion and creating more interest
in the Indians of South Africa. The £3 tax was an open sore. There
could be no peace until it was abolished.
But who was to take charge of
the Congress work and Education Society in my absence? I could think of
two men--Adamji Miyakhan and Parsi Rustomji. There were many workers now
available from the commercial class. But the foremost among those who could
fulfil the duties of the secretary by regular work, and who also commanded
the regard of the Indian community, were these two. The secretary certainly
needed a working knowledge of English. I recommended the late Adamji Miyakhan's
name to the Congress, and it approved of his appointment as secretary.
Experience showed that the choice was a very happy one. Adamji Miyakhan
satisfied all with his perseverance, liberality, amiability, and courtesy,
and proved to everyone that the secretary's work did not require a man
with a barrister's degree or high English education.
About the middle of 1896 I sailed
for home in the s.s. Pongola, which was bound for Calcutta.
There were very few passengers
on board. Among them were two English officers, with whom I came in close
contact. With one of them I used to play chess for an hour daily. The ship's
doctor gave me a Tamil Self-Teacher which I began to study. My experience
in Natal had shown me that I should acquire a knowledge of Urdu to get
into closer contact with the Musalmans, and of Tamil to get into closer
touch with the Madras Indians.
At the request of the English
friend who read Urdu with me, I found out a good Urdu Munshi from among
the deck passengers, and we made excellent progress in our studies. The
officer had a better memory than I. He would never forget a word after
once he had seen it; I often found it difficult to decipher Urdu letters.
I brought more perseverance to bear, but could never overtake the officer.
With Tamil I made fair progress.
There was no help available, but the Tamil Self-Teacher was a well-written
book, and I did not feel in need of much outside help.
I had hoped to continue these
studies even after reaching India, but it was impossible. Most of my reading
since 1893 has been done in jail. I did make some progress in Tamil and
in jails--Tamil in South African jails, and Urdu in Yeravda jail. But I
never learnt to speak Tamil, and the little I could do by way of reading
is now rusting away for want of practice.
I still feel what a handicap
this ignorance of Tamil or Telugu has been. The affection that the Dravidians
in South Africa showered on me has remained a cherished memory. Whenever
I see a Tamil or Telugu friend, I cannot but recall the faith, perseverance,
and selfless sacrifice of many of his compatriots in South Africa. And
they were mostly illiterate, the men no less than the women. The fight
in South Africa was for such, and it was fought by illiterate soldiers;
it was for the poor, and the poor took their full share in it. Ignorance
of their language, however, was never a handicap to me in stealing the
hearts of these simple and good countrymen. They spoke broken Hindustani
or broken English, and we found no difficulty in getting on with our work.
But I wanted to requite their affection by learning Tamil and Telugu. In
Tamil, as I have said, I made some little progress, but in Telugu, which
I tried to learn in India, I did not get beyond the alphabet. I fear now
I can never learn these languages, and am therefore hoping that the Dravidians
will learn Hindustani. The non-English-speaking among them in South Africa
do speak Hindi or Hindustani, however indifferently. It is only the English-speaking
ones who will not learn it, as though a knowledge of English were an obstacle
to learning our own languages.
But I have digressed. Let me
finish the narrative of my voyage. I have to introduce to my readers the
captain of the s.s. Pongola. We had become friends. The good captain
was a Plymouth Brother. Our talks were more about spiritual subjects than
nautical. He drew a line between morality and faith. The teaching of the
Bible was to him child's play. Its beauty lay in its simplicity. Let all
men, women, and children, he would say, have faith in Jesus and his sacrifice,
and their sins were sure to be redeemed. This friend revived my memory
of the Plymouth Brother of Pretoria. The religion that imposed any moral
restrictions was to him no good. My vegetarian food had been the occasion
of the whole of this discussion. Why should I not eat meat, or for that
matter beef? Had not God created all the lower animals for the enjoyment
of mankind as, for instance, He had created the vegetable kingdom? These
questions inevitably drew us into religious discussion.
We could not convince each other.
I was confirmed in my opinion that religion and morality were synonymous.
The captain had no doubt about the correctness of his opposite conviction.
At the end of twenty-four days
the pleasant voyage came to a close, and admiring the beauty of the Hooghly,
I landed at Calcutta. The same day I took the train for Bombay.