What brought Gandhi to South Africa?
Gandhi first arrived in South Africa in 1893, after taking an assignment for a Durban-based firm, Dada Abdullah and Company. For him, coming to South Africa was a fresh start. Much of his life as a lawyer in India was marked by a near-neurotic shyness, which rendered him unable to speak freely in court. After losing a case, during which he was sent into a spin by the pressures of court, he was forced to write "testimonials" and other legal documents to maintain himself. When his lack of social aptitude meant that he ran foul of the colonial officer running the Small Causes court in India, his options became increasingly limited. He could not speak in court, and he could not practice law in his adopted city, Bombay. The only option available, if he was to continue practising as a lawyer, was to do so outside of India.
Gandhi's autobiography is surprisingly candid. In it he talks about his incredible shyness while a young man in India. It was this shyness that led to his failure as a lawyer in India and his decision to come to South Africa. He also notes here how it was only in SA that he overcame his shyness.
"I once went to Ventnor with Sjt. Mazmudar. We stayed there with a vegetarian family. Mr. Howard, the author of The Ethics of Diet, was also staying at the same watering place. We met him, and he invited us to speak at a meeting for the promotion of vegetarianism. I had ascertained that it was not considered incorrect to read one's speech.
"I knew that many did so to express themselves coherently and briefly. To speak ex tempore would have been out of the question for me. I had therefore written down my speech. I stood up to read it, but could not. My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap. Sjt. Mazmudar had to read it for me. His own speech was of course excellent and was received with applause. I was ashamed of myself and sad at heart for my incapacity.
"My last effort to make a public speech in England was on the eve of my departure for home. But this time too I only succeeded in making myself ridiculous. I invited my vegetarian friends to dinner in the Holborn Restaurant referred to in these chapters. 'A vegetarian dinner could be had,' I said to myself, 'in vegetarian restaurants as a matter of course. But why should it not be possible in a non-vegetarian restaurant too?' And I arranged with the manager of the Holborn Restaurant to provide a strictly vegetarian meal.
I stood up to read [my speech], but could not. My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap... I was ashamed of myself and sad at heart for my incapacity.
"The vegetarians hailed the new experiment with delight. All dinners are meant for enjoyment, but the West has developed the thing into an art. They are celebrated with great eclat, music and speeches. And the little dinner party that I gave was also not unaccompanied by some such display. Speeches, therefore, there had to be.
"When my turn for speaking came, I stood up to make a speech. I had with great care thought out one which would consist of a very few sentences. But I could not proceed beyond the first sentence. I had read of Addison that he began his maiden speech in the House of Commons, repeating 'I conceive' three times, and when he could proceed no further, a wag stood up and said, 'The gentleman conceived thrice but brought forth nothing.' I had thought of making a humorous speech taking this anecdote as the text. I therefore began with it and stuck there. My memory entirely failed me and in attempting a humorous speech I made myself ridiculous. 'I thank you, gentlemen, for having kindly responded to my invitation,' I said abruptly, and sat down.
"It was only in South Africa that I got over this shyness, though I never completely overcame it. It was impossible for me to speak impromptu. I hesitated whenever I had to face strange audiences and avoided making a speech whenever I could. Even today I do not think I could or would even be inclined to keep a meeting of friends engaged in idle talk.
"I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage. My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words. I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. And I can now give myself the certificate that a thoughtless word hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my speech or writing."
- Gandhi, M. An Autobiography or My Experiments With the Truth, Gandhi Book Centre, Bombay. Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, p32
First big failure
In the following extract Ghandi talks about his first major failure, which he felt had ruined his reputation as a lawyer in India.
"While in Bombay, I began, on the one hand, my study of Indian law and, on the other, my experiments in dietetics in which Virchand Gandhi, a friend, joined me. My brother, for his part, was trying his best to get me briefs.
"The study of Indian law was a tedious business. The Civil Procedure Code I could in no way get on with. Not so however, with the Evidence Act. Virchand Gandhi was reading for the Solicitor's Examination and would tell me all sorts of stories about barristers and vakils. 'Sir Pherozeshah's ability,' he would say, 'lies in his profound knowledge of law. He has the Evidence Act by heart and knows all the cases on the thirty-second section. Badruddin Tyabji's wonderful power of argument inspires the judges with awe.' The stories of stalwarts such as these would unnerve me.
"'It is not unusual,' he would add, 'for a barrister to vegetate for five or seven years. That's why I have signed the articles for solicitorship. You should count yourself lucky if you can paddle your own canoe in three years' time.'
I had not the courage to conduct a case. I was helpless beyond words, even as the bride come fresh to her father-in-law's house!
"Expenses were mounting up every month. To have a barrister's board outside the house, whilst still preparing for the barrister's profession inside, was a thing to which I could not reconcile myself. Hence I could not give undivided attention to my studies. I developed some liking for the Evidence Act and read Mayne's Hindu Law with deep interest, but I had not the courage to conduct a case. I was helpless beyond words, even as the bride come fresh to her father-in-law's house!
"About this time, I took up the case of one Mamibai. It was a 'small cause'. 'You will have to pay some commission to the tout,' I was told. I emphatically declined.
"'But even that great criminal lawyer Mr So-and-So, who makes three to four thousand a month, pays commission!'
"'I do not need to emulate him,' I rejoined. 'I should be content with Rs. 300 a month. Father did not get more.'
"'But those days are gone. Expenses in Bombay have gone up frightfully. You must be businesslike.'
"I was adamant. I gave no commission, but got Mamibai's case all the same. It was an easy case. I charged Rs. 30 for my fees. The case was not likely to last longer than a day.
"This was my debut in the Small Causes Court. I appeared for the defendant and had thus to cross-examine the plaintiff's witnesses. I stood up, but my heart sank into my boots. My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask. The judge must have laughed, and the vakils no doubt enjoyed the spectacle.
"But I was past seeing anything. I sat down and told the agent that I could not conduct the case, that he had better engage Patel and have the fee back from me. Mr. Patel was duly engaged for Rs. 51. To him, of course, the case was child's play.
"I hastened from the Court, not knowing whether my client won or lost her case, but I was ashamed of myself, and decided not to take up any more cases until I had courage enough to conduct them. Indeed I did not go to Court again until I went to South Africa. There was no virtue in my decision. I had simply made a virtue of necessity. There would be no one so foolish as to entrust his case to me, only to lose it!"
- Gandhi, M. An Autobiography or My Experiments With the Truth, Gandhi Book Centre, Bombay. Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, pp47-48
After his first failure in court, Gandhi moved to Rajkot to set up his own office as an applications and memorial drafter (thus keeping him away from the hurly-burly of court-based criminal law). However, this practice also failed, largely due to what he sees as his failure to master human relations. It was after this that he decided to come to South Africa to practice law.
"'In the meantime a Meman firm from Porbandar wrote to my brother making the following offer: "We have business in South Africa. Ours is a big firm, and we have a big case there in the Court, our claim being £40 000. It has been going on for a long time. We have engaged the services of the best vakils and barristers. If you sent your brother there, he would be useful to us and also to himself. He would be able to instruct our counsel better than ourselves. And he would have the advantage of seeing a new part of the world, and of making new acquaintances.'
I wanted somehow to leave India. There was also the tempting opportunity of seeing a new country, and of having new experience.
"My brother discussed the proposition with me. I could not clearly make out whether I had simply to instruct the counsel or to appear in court. But I was tempted.
"My brother introduced me to the late Sheth Abdul Karim Jhaveri a partner of Dada Abdulla & Co; the firm in question. 'It won't be a difficult job,' the Sheth assured me. 'We have big Europeans as our friends, whose acquaintance you will make. You can be useful to us in our shop. Much of our correspondence is in English and you can help us with that too. You will, of course, be our guest and hence will have no expense whatever.'
"'How long do you require my services?' I asked. 'And what will be the payment?'
"'Not more than a year. We will pay you a first class return fare and a sum of £105, all found.'
"This was hardly going there as a barrister. It was going as a servant of the firm. But I wanted somehow to leave India. There was also the tempting opportunity of seeing a new country, and of having new experience. Also I could send £105 to my brother and help in the expenses of the household. I closed with the offer without any haggling, and got ready to go to South Africa."
- Gandhi, M. An Autobiography or My Experiments With the Truth, Gandhi Book Centre, Bombay. Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, p52