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 matter 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 the conduct of a few
Indians was the measure of that of the millions of their
I had found our peoples' 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 meeting.
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, I 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 barber 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 tired, 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, maybe,
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 wished.
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 out.
But God disposed otherwise.