The heart's earnest and pure desire is always fulfilled. In my own experience I have often seen this rule verified. Service of the poor has been my heart's desire, and it has always thrown me amongst the poor and enabled me to identify myself with them.
Although the members of the Natal Indian Congress included the
colonial-born Indians and the clerical class, the unskilled wage-earners, the indentured labourers were still outside its pale. The
Congress was not yet theirs. They could not afford to belong to it
by paying the subscription and becoming its members. The Congress
could win their attachment only by serving them. An opportunity
offered itself when neither the Congress nor I was really ready for
it. I had put in scarcely three or four month's practice, and the
Congress also was still in its infancy, when a Tamil man in tattered
clothes, head-gear in hand, two front teeth broken and his mouth
bleeding, stood before me trembling and weeping. He had been heavily belaboured by his master. I learnt all about him from my clerk, who
was a Tamilian. Balasundaram - as that was the visitor's name - was
serving his indenture under a well-known European resident of
Durban. The master, getting angry with him, had lost self-control,
and had beaten Balasundaram severely, breaking two of his teeth.
I sent him to a doctor. In those days only white doctors were
available. I wanted a certificate from the doctor about the nature
of the injury Balasundaram had sustained. I secured the certificate,
and straightway took the injured man to the magistrate, to whom I
submitted his affidavit. The magistrate was indignant when he read
it and issued a summons against the employer.
It was far from my desire to get the employer punished. I simply
wanted Balasundaram to be released from him. I read the law about
indentured labour. If an ordinary servant left service without
giving notice, he was liable to be sued by his master in a civil
court. With the indentured labourer the case was entirely different.
He was liable, in similar circumstances, to be proceeded against in
a criminal court and to be imprisoned on conviction. That is why Sir
William Hunter called the indenture system almost as bad as slavery.
Like the slave the indentured labourer was the property of his
There were only two ways of releasing Balasundaram: either by
getting the Protector of Indentured Labourers to cancel his
indenture or transfer him to someone else, or by getting
Balasundaram's employer to release him. I called on the latter and
said to him: 'I do not want to proceed against you and get you
punished. I think you realize that you have severely beaten the man.
I shall be satisfied if you will transfer the indenture to someone
else.' To this he readily agreed. I next saw the Protector. He also
agreed, on condition that I found a new employer.
So I went off in search of an employer. He had to be a European, as
no Indians could employ indentured labour. At that time I knew very
few Europeans. I met one of them. He very kindly agreed to take on
Balasundaram. I gratefully acknowledged his kindness. The magistrate
convicted Balasundaram's employer, and recorded that he had
undertaken to transfer the indenture to someone else.
Balasundaram's case reached the ears of every indentured labourer,
and I came to be regarded as their friend. I hailed this connection
with delight. A regular stream of indentured labourers began to pour
into my office, and I got the best opportunity of learning their
joys and sorrows.
The echoes of Balasundaram's case were heard in far off Madras.
Labourers from different parts of the province, who went to Natal on
indenture, came to know of this case through their indentured
There was nothing extraordinary in the case itself, but the fact
that there was someone in Natal to espouse their cause and publicly
work for them gave the indentured labourer a joyful surprise and
inspired him with hope.
I have said that Balasundaram entered my office, head-gear in hand.
There was a peculiar pathos about the circumstance which also showed
our humiliation. I have already narrated the incident when I was
asked to take off my turban. A practice had been forced upon every
indentured labourer and every Indian stranger to take off his head-gear, when visiting a European, whether the head-gear were a cap,
turban or a scarf wrapped round the head. A salute even with both
hands was not sufficient. Balasundaram thought that he should follow
the practice even with me. This was the first case in my experience.
I felt humiliated and asked him to tie up his scarf. He did so, not
without a certain hesitation, but I could perceive the pleasure on
It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves
honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.