The port of Natal is Durban also known as Port Natal. Abdulla Sheth was there to receive me. As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to meet their friends, I observed that the Indians were not held in much respect. I could not fail to notice a sort of snobbishness about the manner in which those who knew Abdulla Sheth behaved towards him, and it stung me. Abdulla Sheth had got used to it. Those who looked at me did so with a certain amount of curiosity. My dress marked me out from other Indians. I had a frock-coat and a turban, an imitation of the Bengal pugree.
I was taken to the firm's quarters and shown into the room set apart
for me, next to Abdulla Sheth's. He did not understand me, I could
not understand him. He read the papers his brother had sent through
me, and felt more puzzled. He thought his brother had sent him a
white elephant. My style of dress and living struck him as being
expensive like that of the Europeans. There was no particular work
then which could be given me. Their case was going on in the
Transvaal. There was no meaning in sending me there immediately. And
how far could he trust my ability and honesty? He would not be in
Pretoria to watch me. The defendants were in Pretoria, and for aught
he knew they might bring undue influence to bear on me. And if work
in connection with the case in question was not to be entrusted to
me, what work could I be given to do, as all other work could be
done much better by his clerks? The clerks could be brought to book,
if they did wrong. Could I be, if I also happened to err? So if no
work in connection with the case could be given me, I should have to
be kept for nothing.
Abdulla Sheth was practically unlettered, but he had a rich fund of
experience. He had an acute intellect and was conscious of it. By
practice he had picked up just sufficient English for conversational
purposes, but that served him for carrying on all his business,
whether it was dealing with Bank Managers and European merchants or
explaining his case to his counsel. The Indians held him in very
high esteem. His firm was then the biggest, or at any rate one of
the biggest, of the Indian firms. With all these advantages he had
one disadvantage – he was by nature suspicious.
He was proud of Islam and loved to discourse on Islamic philosophy.
Though he did not know Arabic, his acquaintance with the Holy Koran
and Islamic literature in general was fairly good. Illustrations he
had in plenty, always ready at hand. Contact with him gave me a fair
amount of practical knowledge of Islam. When we came closer to each
other, we had long discussions on religious topics.
On the second or third day of my arrival, he took me to see the Durban court. There
he introduced me to several people and seated me next to his
attorney. The Magistrate kept staring at me and finally asked me to
take off my turban. This I refused to do and left the court.
So here too there was fighting in store for me.
Abdulla Sheth explained to me why some Indians were required to take
off their turbans. Those wearing the Musalman costume might, he
said, keep their turbans on, but the other Indians on entering a
court had to take theirs off as a rule.
I must enter into some details to make this nice distinction
intelligible. In the course of these two or three days I could see
that the Indians were divided into different groups. One was that of
Musalman merchants, who would call themselves 'Arabs'. Another was
that of Hindu, and yet another of Parsi, clerks. The Hindu clerks
were neither here nor there, unless they cast in their lot with the
'Arabs'. The Parsi clerks would call themselves Persians. These three
classes had some social relations with one another. But by far the
largest class was that composed of Tamil, Telugu and North Indian
indentured and freed labourers. The indentured labourers were those
who went to natal on an agreement to serve for five years, and came
to be known there as girmitiyas from girmit, which was the corrupt form of the English word
'agreement'. The other three classes had none but business relations
with this class. Englishmen called them' coolies' and as the
majority of Indians belonged to the labouring class, all Indians
were called 'coolies,' or 'samis'. Sami
is a Tamil suffix occurring after many Tamil names, and it is
nothing else than the Samskrit Swami,
meaning a master. Whenever, therefore, an Indian resented being
addressed as a sami and had enough wit in him, he would try to return the compliment in
this wise: 'You may call me sami,
but you forget that sami means a master. I am not your master!' Some Englishmen would wince
at this, while others would get angry, swear at the Indian and, if
there was a chance, would even belabour him; for sami
to him was nothing better than a term of contempt. To interpret it
to mean a master amounted to an insult!
I was hence known as a 'coolie barrister'. The merchants were known as 'coolie merchants'.
The original meaning of the word 'coolie' was thus forgotten, and it
became a common appellation for all Indians. The Musalman merchant
would resent this and say: 'I am not a coolie, I am an Arab,' or 'I
am a merchant', and the Englishman, if courteous, would apologize to
The question of wearing the turban had a great importance in this
state of things. Being obliged to take off one's Indian turban would
be pocketing an insult. So I thought I had better bid good-bye to
the Indian turban and begin wearing an English hat, which would save
me from the insult and the unpleasant controversy.
But Abdulla Sheth disapproved of the idea. He said, 'If you do
anything of the kind, it will have a very bad effect. You will
compromise those insisting on wearing Indian turbans. And an Indian
turban sits well on your head. If you wear an English hat, you will
pass for a waiter.'
There was practical wisdom, patriotism and a little bit of
narrowness in this advice. The wisdom was apparent, and he would not
have insisted on the Indian turban except out of patriotism; the
slighting reference to the waiter betrayed a kind of narrowness.
Amongst the indentured Indians there were three classes – Hindus, Musalmans and Christians. The last were the children of indentured
Indians who became converts to Christanity. Even in 1893 their
number was large. They wore the English costume, and the majority
of them earned their living by service as waiters in hotels. Abdulla
Sheth's criticism of the English hat was with reference to this
class. It was considered degrading to serve as a waiter in a hotel.
The belief persists even today among many.
On the whole I liked Abdulla Sheth's advice. I wrote to the press about the incident and
defended the wearing of my turban in the court. The question was
very much discussed in the papers, which described me as an
'unwelcome visitor'. Thus the incident gave me an unexpected
advertisement in South Africa within a few days of my arrival there.
Some supported me while others severely criticized my temerity.
My turban stayed with me practically until the end of my stay in
South Africa. When and why I left off wearing any head-dress at all
in South Africa, we shall see later.