Portrait of Gandhi as a young man

MK Gandhi | Updated on January 30, 2021

Homecoming: Gandhi left South Africa in 1901, convinced that he had work to do in India   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

MK Gandhi looks at his early years as a lawyer and householder in ‘Restless As Mercury’. An extract from the newly-published volume edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi on the father of the nation, who was assassinated 73 years ago on January 30

* The farewell was overwhelming. Gifts include things in gold and silver

* I was determined to return the ornaments. I somehow succeeded in extorting a consent from her

* I had to leave for Calcutta almost immediately to attend the Congress session

* I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder


Trying India Out

The Gandhis were and are a big family.

With the war over, I began to feel that my work was no longer in South Africa but in India. And that my main business might become merely money-making. Friends at home were also pressing me to return. After very great difficulty, my request was conditionally accepted by my co-workers, the condition being that I should be ready to go back to South Africa if, within a year, the community should need me.

The farewell was overwhelming. Gifts include things in gold and silver. There were articles of costly diamond as well. One of the gifts was a gold necklace worth fifty guineas, meant for my wife. But even that gift was given because of my public work. I decided I could not keep these things. I drafted a letter creating a trust of them in favour of the community. My children readily agreed to my proposal.

Restless As Mercury: My Life As a Young Man / Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi / Aleph Book Company / Non-fiction / ₹ 999


‘You may not need them,’ said my wife. ‘Your children may not need them. Cajoled, they will dance to your tune. I can understand your not permitting me to wear them. But what of my daughters-in-law? They will be sure to need them. And who knows what will happen tomorrow?’ And thus the torrent of argument went on, reinforced by tears.

‘And what right have you to my necklace?’

‘But is the necklace given to you for your service or for my service?’

‘I have toiled and moiled for you day and night. Is that no service?’

These were pointed thrusts and some of them went home. But I was determined to return the ornaments. I somehow succeeded in extorting a consent from her.

In a letter to Parsi Rustomji, Honorary Secretary of the Farewell Address Committee, I wrote on 18 October 1901: ‘Neither I nor my family can make any use of the costly presents. They are too sacred to be sold by me or by my heirs, and seeing that there can be no guarantee against the last contingency, in my opinion, the only way in which I can return the love of our people is to dedicate them all to a scared object. And since they are in reality a tribute to the [Natal Indian] Congress principles, to the Congress I return them.’

We sailed for India on 18 October, disembarking in Port Louis, Mauritius, on 30 October. The Indian community gave us a reception on 13 November at which I said the sugar industry in the island owed its unprecedented prosperity to Indian immigrants. The Standard and Le Radicale reported my speech on 15 November, including my exhorting the community to acquaint itself with happenings in the motherland. While in Mauritius we spent a night with the India-born Governor of Mauritius, Sir Charles Bruce, a scholar of Sanskrit and sympathizer of the cause of Indian emigrants.

We reached India in the middle of December. I wrote to the Editor of the Times of India on 19 December on the South Africa question: ‘Sir Mancherji Bhownaggree has been rendering a most useful service to the cause of the sufferers. In season and out of season, within the House of Commons and without, with pen and voice, he has been asking for, not without success, a redress of our grievances... The [Indian National] Congress has been passing resolutions year after year, sympathizing with us. But, in my humble opinion, something more is required. I have been asked by the leading Indians in South Africa to suggest a representative delegation to the viceroy.’

Making a brief halt at Porbandar, we went home — to Rajkot. The two older boys, Harilal and Manilal, and my nephew, Gokuldas, were not strangers to it but Ramdas, then about 4, and Devadas, just one and a half, were seeing India, Bombay, Porbandar, and Rajkot for the first time. All of them needed to be taught our traditional texts apart from whatever they could learn at school. I also engaged a clerk to help me — Mehtaji. My nephew Chhaganlal, was asked by me to see to it that he was paid his due salary during my absence, for which Chhaganlal was to take the required amount from my wife.

Gokuldas and Harilal started studying in Standard IV of the secondary school. Manilal began studying privately, not having joined any specific standard at school.

I had to leave for Calcutta almost immediately to attend the Congress session. I stayed there at India Club.

From there I wrote on 23 December to Chhaganlal, who was a teacher, to see to it that Gokuldas and Harilal had stories read out to them from Kavyadohan, a collection of story-poems based on the Mahabharata, Bhagavata and other works. I asked him to particularly read out and explain the stories of Sudama, Nala, and Angada. The story of Harishchandra I asked him to narrate or read out from the book. It was not necessary, I said to Chhaganlal, to read out to the boys English plays as they would not be interested in them. Moreover there was not so much moral to be drawn from English poets as from our story-poems. But study apart, it was important that the boys behaved well in class and did not pick up bad habits of any kind. And he was to see that besides attending to studies they took adequate exercise.

The boys were getting fever by turns. On 25 January, I requested my old friend from London days, Dalpatram Shukla, now settled in Rajkot, to keep visiting our home now and then.

At the Congress camp, I made friends with a few volunteers. I told them things about South Africa and they seemed to understand. They were clashing against one another. You asked one of them to do something. He delegated it to another and he in turn to a third. The delegates were of a piece with the volunteers. They would do nothing themselves. ‘Volunteer, do this’, ‘Volunteer, do that’, were their constant orders. There was no limit to insanitation. Pools of water were everywhere. There were only a few latrines, and the recollection of their stink still oppresses me. I pointed it out to volunteers. They said point blank: ‘That is not our work, it is the scavenger’s work.’ I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder. But that was for myself. I saw that if the Congress session were to be prolonged, conditions would be quite favourable for the outbreak of an epidemic.

Moving a resolution on the condition in South Africa, I spoke at the Congress on 27 December. ‘If our worthy President were to go to South Africa,’ I said, ‘I am afraid, he too would be classified as a coolie, a member of the semi-civilized races of Asia.’ And I reminded the delegates: ‘The Congress is, I believe, meant among other things to testify to our ability to stand side by side with the other civilized races of the world in foreign enterprises and self-government.’

Excepted with permission from Restless As Mercury: My Life As a Young Man Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi published by Aleph Book Company

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Published on January 30, 2021
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