XII. SEEKING TOUCH
Before writing further about Christian contacts, I
must record other experiences of the same period.
Sheth Tyeb Haji Khan Muhammad had in Pretoria the same
position as was enjoyed by Dada Abdulla in Natal. There
was no public movement that could be conducted without
him. I made his acquaintance the very first week and told
him of my intention to get in touch with every Indian in
Pretoria. I expressed a desire to study the conditions of
Indians there, and asked for his help in my work, which
he gladly agreed to give.
My first step was to call a meeting of all the Indians
in Pretoria and to present to them a picture of their
condition in the Transvaal. The meeting was held at the
house of Sheth Haji Muhammad Haji Joosab, to whom I had a
letter of introduction. It was principally attended by
Meman merchants, though there was a sprinkling of Hindus
as well. The Hindu population in Pretoria was as a metter
of fact, very small.
My speech at this meeting may be said to have been the
first public speech in my life. I went fairly prepared
with my subject, which was about observing truthfulness
in business. I had always heard the merchants say that
truth was not possible in business. I did not think so
then, nor do I now. Even today there are merchant friends
who contend that truth is inconsistent with business.
Business,they say, is a very practical affair, and truth
a matter of religion; and they argue that practical
affairs are one thing, while religion is quite another.
Pure truth, they hold, is out of the question in
business, one can speak it only so far as is suitable. I
strongly contested the position in my speech and awakened
the merchants to a sense of their duty, which was
two-fold. Their responsibility to be truthful was all the
greater in a foreign land, because of the millions of
I had found our people's habits to be insanitary, as
compared with those of the Englishmen around them, and
drew their attention to it. I laid stress on the
necessity of forgetting all distinctions such as Hindus,
Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis,
Punjabis, Sindhis, Kachchhis, Surtis and so on.
I suggested, in conclusion, the formation of an
association to make representations to the authorities
concerned in respect of the hardships of the Indian
settlers, and offered to place at its disposal as much of
my time and service as was possible.
I saw that I made a considerable impression on the
My speech was followed by discussion. Some offered to
supply me with facts. I felt encouraged. I saw that very
few amongst my audience knew English. As I felt that
knowledge of English would be useful in that country,
advised those who had leisure to learn English. I told
them that it was possible to learn a language even at an
advanced age, and cited cases of people who had done so.
I undertook, besides, to teach a class, if one was
started or personally to instruct individuals desiring to
learn the language.
The class was not started, but three young men
expressed their readiness to learn at their convenience,
and on condition that I went to their places to teach
them. Of these, two were Musalmans one of them a barbar
and the other a clerk and the third was a Hindu, a petty
shopkeeper. I agreed to suit them all. I had no
misgivings regarding my capacity to teach. My pupils
might become tried, but not I. Sometimes it happened that
I would go to their places only to find them engaged in
their business. But I did not lose patience. None of the
three desired a deep study of English, but two may be
said to have made fairly good progress in about eight
months. Two learnt enough to keep accounts and write
ordinary business letters. The barber's ambition was
confined to acquiring just enough English for dealing
with his customers. As a result of their studies, two of
the pupils were equipped for making a fair income.
I was satisfied with the result of the meeting. It was
decided to hold such meetings, as far as I remember, once
a week or, may be, once a month. These were held more or
less regularly, and on these occasions there was a free
exchange of ideas. The result was that there was now in
Pretoria no Indian I did not know, or whose condition I
was not acquainted with. This prompted me in turn to make
the acquaintance of the British Agent in Pretoria, Mr.
Jacobus de Wet. He had sympathy for the Indians, but he
had very little influence. However, he agreed to help us
as best he could, and invited me to meet him whenever I
I now communicated with the railway authorities and
told them that, even under their own regulations, the
disabilities about travelling under which the Indians
laboured could not be justified. I got a letter in reply
to the effect that first and second class tickets would
be issued to Indians who were properly dressed. This was
far from giving adequate relief, as it rested with the
Station Master to decide who was 'properly dressed.'
The British Agent showed me some papers dealing with
Indian affairs. Tyeb Sheth had also given me similar
papers. I learnt from them how cruelly the Indians were
hounded out from the Orange Free State.
In short, my stay in Pretoria enabled me to make a
deep study of the social, economic and political
condition of the Indians in the Transvaal and the Orange
Free State. I had no idea that this study was to be of
invaluable service to me in the future. For I had thought
of returning home by the end of the year, or even
earlier, if the case was finished before the year was
But God disposed otherwise.