By now I had been three years in South Africa. I had got to know the people and they had got to know me. In 1896 I asked permission to go home for six months, for I saw that I was in for a long stay there. I had established a fairly good practice, and could see that people felt the need of my presence. So I made up my mind to go home, fetch my wife and children, and then return and settle out there. I also saw that, if I went home, I might be able to do there some public work by educating public opinion and creating more interest in the Indians of South Africa. The £3 tax was an open sore. There could be no peace until it was abolished.
But who was to take charge of the Congress work and Education
Society in my absence? I could think of two men – Adamji Miyakhan and
Parsi Rustomji. There were many workers now available from the
commercial class. But the foremost among those who could fulfill the
duties of the secretary by regular work, and who also commanded the
regard of the Indian community, were these two. The secretary
certainly needed a working knowledge of English. I recommended the
late Adamji Miyakhan's name to the Congress, and it approved of his
appointment as secretary. Experience showed that the choice was a
very happy one. Adamji Miyakhan satisfied all with his perseverance,
liberality, amiability and courtesy, and proved to every one that
the secretary's work did not require a man with a barrister's degree
or high English education.
About the middle of 1896 I sailed for home in the s. s. Pongola
which was bound for Calcutta.
There were very few passengers on board. Among them were two English
officers, with whom I came in close contact. With one of them I used
to play chess for an hour daily. The ship's doctor gave me a Tamil Self-Teacher
which I began to study. My experience in Natal had shown me that I
should acquire a knowledge of Urdu to get into closer contact with
the Musalmans, and of Tamil to get into closer touch with the Madras
At the request of the English friend, who read Urdu with me, I found
out a good Urdu Munshi from among he deck passengers, and we made
excellent progress in our studies. The officer had a better memory
than I. He would never forget a word after once he had seen it; I
often found it difficult to decipher Urdu letters. I brought more
perseverance to bear, but could never overtake the officer.
With Tamil I made fair progress. There was no help available, but
the Tamil Self-Teacher
was a well-written book, and I did not feel in need of much outside
I had hoped to continue these studies even after reaching India, but
it was impossible. Most of my reading since 1893 has been done in
jail. I did make some progress in Tamil and Urdu, in jails –
Tamil in South African jails, and Urdu in Yeravda jail. But I never
learnt to speak Tamil, and the little I could do by way of reading
is now rusting away for want of practice.
I still feel what a handicap this ignorance of Tamil or Telugu has
been. The affection that the Dravidians in South Africa showered on
me has remained a cherished memory. Whenever I see a Tamil or Telugu
friend, I cannot but recall the faith, perseverance and selfless
sacrifice of many of his compatriots in South Africa. And they were
mostly illiterate, the men no less than the women. The fight in
South Africa was for such, and it was fought by illiterate soldiers;
it was for the poor and the poor took their full share in it.
Ignorance of their language, however, was never a handicap to me in
stealing the hearts of these simple and good countrymen. They spoke
broken Hindustani or broken English, and we found no difficulty in
getting on with our work. But I wanted to requite their affection by
learning Tamil and Telugu. In Tamil, as I have said, I made some
little progress, but in Telugu, which I tried to learn in India, I
did not get beyond the alphabet. I fear now I can never learn these
languages, and am therefore hoping that the Dravidians will learn
Hindustani. The non-English-speaking among them in South Africa do
speak Hindi or Hindustani, however indifferently. It is only the
English-speaking ones who will not learn it, as though a knowledge
of English were an obstacle to learning our own languages.
But I have digressed. Let me finish the narrative of my voyage. I
have to introduce to my readers the captain of the s .s. Poongola.
We had become friends. The good captain was a Plymouth Brother. Our
talks were more about spiritual subjects than nautical. He drew a
line between morality and faith. The teaching of the Bible was to
him child's play. Its beauty lay in its simplicity. Let all, men,
women and children, he would say, have faith in Jesus and his
sacrifice, and their sins were sure to be redeemed. This friend
revived my memory of the Plymouth Brother of Pretoria. The religion
that imposed any moral restrictions was to him no good. My
vegetarian food had been the occasion of the whole of this
discussion. Why should I not eat meat, or for that matter beef? Had
not God created all the lower animals for the enjoyment of mankind
as, for instance, He had created the vegetable kingdom? These
questions inevitably drew us into religious discussion.
We could not convince each other. I was confirmed in my opinion that
religion and morality were synonymous. The captain had no doubt
about the correctness of his opposite conviction.
At the end of twenty-four days the pleasant voyage came to a close,
and admiring the beauty of the Hooghly, I landed at Calcutta. The
same day I took the train for Bombay.