The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 2

Gandhi-in

Upon completion of high school, Mohandas enrolled at Samaldas College at Bhavnagar. He was discontent with the classes; they did not stimulate or engage him, so he returned home after the first ten days. At home a huge surprise awaited him. His eldest brother and a family friend suggested that Mohandas should go to England to study and become a barrister. Mohandas was thrilled. It was a great opportunity to see the world. His mother, however, disapproved. She did not like the idea of her son being so far away from her. There were also the financial implications. And she was fearful that he would lose his caste if he crossed the oceans, an age-old taboo against overseas travel among the high caste Hindus. The family friend assured her that there would be no such difficulty and all would be well. She had reservations and talked to him about it. She worried that he would eat meat, imbibe alcohol, and fall victim to bad influences. Mohandas vowed to do none of those, and pled with her to be permitted to go. Putlibai at last gave in and allowed him to go to England.

Mohandas was sorrowful when he left Rajkot for Bombay, because he had to leave behind his mother, his wife, and son Harilal, who was only a few months old. On September 4, 1888, Mohandas left Bombay to set sail for England. Dressed in western style, he stood on the deck as the ship slowly steamed out of the harbor. Mohandas never forgot his first morning on board. He felt uncomfortable in his black suit and shirt and tie. He was quite sure that Indian attire was more suitable. A glance in the mirror made him feel proud of himself. He thought he looked very impressive. Mohandas was shy. He rarely left his cabin. He even ate by himself. He was not sure of all those unknown foods served on the ship. He thought they might contain meat and did not wish to break his vow to his mother never to eat meat. So he lived mainly on the snacks and sweets he had brought from home.

On landing at Southampton he looked around and saw that all the people were in dark clothes, wearing bowler hats and carrying overcoats. Mohandas was embarrassed to find that he was the only one wearing white flannels. In London, he stayed at first at the Victoria Hotel. Dr. P. J. Mehta, a friend of the Gandhi family, was the first to meet him. Mohandas was impressed with Dr. Mehta’s silk top hat. Out of curiosity, he reached out and touched the pile of the silk. Dr. Mehta then gave him his first lesson in European manners cautioning him not to touch other peoples’ things. He advised Mohandas to never ask too many probing questions, and not to talk loudly.

Young Gandhi found everything around him strange. He was homesick. He almost starved until he discovered a vegetarian restaurant. Struggling to learn western manners and customs, he rented a suite of rooms. He bought well-tailored clothes and a top hat. He spent a lot of time before the mirror, parting his straight hair and fixing his tie. He took lessons in dancing, but soon gave it up as he had no sense of rhythm. He tried his hand at playing the violin, but failed. He took lessons in French and elocution, but went to sleep. His attempt to be an Englishman lasted about three months. Then he gave up the idea. He converted himself into a serious student.

“I have changed my way of life,” he told a friend. “All this foolishness is at an end. I am living in one room and cooking my own food. Hereafter I shall devote all my time to study,” he said.

His meals were simple. He avoided expenditure on transport and went on foot everywhere in London. He started to keep an account of every penny he spent. Mohandas joined the London Vegetarian Society and soon found himself in its executive council. He wrote articles for the magazine, Vegetarian.

The bar examination did not require much study and Gandhi had ample time to spare. Oxford or Cambridge was not possible as study at those institutions would entail long course work and much financial resources. He therefore decided to appear for the London matriculation examination. It meant hard work and sacrifice, but he enjoyed hard work. He passed in French, English, and chemistry but failed in Latin. He tried again, and this time passed in Latin too.

Meanwhile, he progressed in his study of law and in November 1888 was admitted to the Inner Temple. It was the tradition of the Inns of Court for the students to dine together at least six times each year. The first time Gandhi dined with his fellow students, he was nervous. He was sure the boys would tease him for refusing meat and alcohol. When wine was offered, he refused to have any. He did not touch the meat either, and sat there, quite content with his bread, boiled potatoes and cabbage. He was pleasantly surprised to find that his strange habits did not make him unpopular. The next time he went for the dinner, he had a pile of law books with him. He was taking the books to his room to study. The other students were amazed by his dedication to learning and very surprised to find him reading Roman law in Latin. Some friends suggested he read abbreviated versions of the law instead of bothering unduly over such tomes. Gandhi explained to his lighthearted friends that he worked so hard for sheer interest in the subject, and that he wanted to acquire knowledge for its own sake.

After a short trip to France, he prepared for the final law examination. The results were soon declared. He had passed with high marks. On June 10, 1891, Gandhi was called to the bar. He was admitted as a barrister and the next day was formally enrolled in the High Court. The following day, June 12, he sailed for India. Gandhi’s three-year stay in England was eventful. Those were days of great intellectual activity, and there was tolerance for every school of thought. The country as a whole was a living university. As Gandhi sailed for home on the S.S. Assam, he felt that, next to India, he would rather live in England than any other place in the world.

To be continued next week…

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