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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 05
Chapter 05
Gandhi set sail for England on the 4th of September 1888. He had managed to get a berth booked for himself in the same cabin in which Mazmudar of Jamnagar (Saurashtra) had booked his berth. Gandhi was aware of the big challenge that he was facing as well as the opportunities that were opening before him. He began to keep a diary, and meticulously recorded all that he observed, all that he felt, all that he thought, all that he did and all that he learned. He was shy and found it very difficult to converse in English. He kept to himself except when someone engaged him in conversation. Those who did, tried to convince him that he would not survive without a non-vegetarian diet. He had hardly eaten anything from the ship's kitchen. He did not know what the items of the menu contained. Nor could he bring himself to enquire from the waiters or others. So he had survived on the snacks and sweets that he had brought from home. He never felt sea-sick, and survived rough seas and reached England.
He booked a room in the Victoria Hotel. It was enormously expensive. The problem with his diet persisted. He had brought some notes of introduction with him. One of them was for Dr. P. J. Mehta. Dr. Mehta introduced him to the basics of British etiquette. He advised Gandhi to move out of the hotel and live with a private family. Gandhi followed his advice. But his problems continued to dog him. He could not get the vegetarian food he wanted. So he hardly ate what he was given. Yet he had to pay for his food. He was miserable. Everything seemed strange, the people, their ways, their habits. He felt homesick, and longed for all that he had left behind in India, his wife and child, his mother, his brother, food and so on. The thought of going back crossed his mind. But he recalled his responsibilities, and decided that he would stay on and qualify as a barrister before he went back.
Dr. Mehta recommended that Gandhi stay with a family he knew till Gandhi could get acclimatized to his environment. But even here, Gandhi found it hard. Food was one of the main problems. One day a friend took him to a highly considered restaurant to induct him into the ways and manners of the British. He ordered soup. Gandhi summoned the waiter to enquire whether it had any element of meat or fish in it. His friend was so offended at Gandhi's persistence in his vegetarianism and in his "awkward" ways that he told Gandhi that he was free to go out and eat where he pleased and meet him later. Gandhi was thankful, and left the restaurant. But he could not find any vegetarian restaurant, and so went without food that night.
He started a search for vegetarian restaurants. One day, on one of his walks he came across a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. He was as delighted as a child that suddenly gets what it has been crying for. He entered, and had his first good meal after he left India. In the restaurant, his eye fell upon a book, Plea for Vegetarianism, written by Salt. He bought it and read it from 'cover to cover'. The book brought about a change in his attitude which can only be described as revolutionary. It convinced him that vegetarianism was no fad or superstition. He found, accepted and relished strong arguments in favour of a vegetarian diet and against living on other animals. He became a vegetarian by choice, by conviction. It restored his self-confidence. He was no longer apologetic or embarrassed. He read other books on dietetics and began to see the relation between one's diet and the health of one's body and mind. From then, experiments in diet took an important place in his life. He began to distinguish between what was necessary to maintain one's health and what was necessary to please one's taste buds. At this time, health was the primary concern of these experiments. In later life, the needs of spiritual life became the supreme motive.
To please his friends and to protect himself, Gandhi decided to make up for his vegetarianism by acquiring accomplishments that were regarded as essential for a socially acceptable gentleman. He equipped himself with suits tailored in the most fashionable area of London Bond Street. A single suit cost him ten pounds. He obtained a double gold chain and a pocket watch, learned to tie a tie, spending ten minutes before the mirror to adjust it, began to take lessons in French, dancing and elocution. He bought a violin and started taking lessons "to cultivate an ear for Western music". He bought a book on elocution.
But the cumulative effect of all this on his meagre resources and on his mind soon made him examine his own motives. He was not going to spend his life in England. His ambition was not to become a faint and fragmented copy of an Englishman. He had come to England to study, and he should go back to his studies, it is not externals that made a gentleman, but character.
As soon as Gandhi arrived at this conclusion, he wrote to his elocution teacher and dance teacher setting out these thoughts and apologizing for discontinuing his studies. He went to the violin teacher and requested her to help him dispose of the violin. He told her how he had discovered that he was following a false ideal. She encouraged him in his determination to make a complete change.
The introspection also extended to other areas. He became conscious of the way he was spending his money and time. He began keeping an account of every penny he spent and insisted on tallying his balance before going to sleep. This habit stayed with him all through his life and stood him in good stead when he had to keep accounts of the large sums of money that he collected for public causes.
The daily scrutiny of expenses also led to the realization that he could lead a far simpler and more, frugal life. So he moved to a single room apartment, walked to his places of business to save on bus fares; and cooked as much of his food as he could. All this helped him to live at an incredibly low expenditure.
The change helped Gandhi to harmonize his "inward and outward life".
In his new found enthusiasm for vegetarianism, Gandhi began contributing articles on vegetarianism. He joined the Vegetarian Society, took part in its deliberations, opened a branch in the area in which he lived and worked as the secretary of the society. This gave him an opportunity to learn how institutions are run and how societies transact their business in meetings. It also enabled him to think dispassionately and precisely, and formulate his independent views. He had not yet overcome his shyness to speak. Even when he had prepared himself or had a prepared text, the moment he stood up he would start feeling that his head was reeling. His mouth would dry up. Someone else would have to read out his speech for him.
There was an occasion on which the Vegetarian Society had to consider a proposal to remove an important member from membership. The ground was that the member was in favour of birth control. The proposal had the backing of the Chairman. But Gandhi had a different view. He was much younger, and inexperienced. Yet he felt that he should not sit silent when something wrong happened in his presence. He felt that since the society was concerned with vegetarianism, it could remove a person only for views or action inconsistent with vegetarianism, and not for a matter that was outside the concern of the society. He was on the losing side, but that did not deter him. Nor did the stature of other members overwhelm him.
His activities in the Vegetarian Society brought him in touch with many well-known men who had become vegetarians. Among them were men of all religions including Theosophists. They introduced him to Theosophy, Madam Blavatsky and Dr. Annie Besant who later became very famous in India. Two of the theosophists wanted him to help them to study the Gita. Gandhi had not read the Gita in Sanskrit or Hindi while he was in India. He confessed this to them. But he thought his acquaintance with Sanskrit would help him to explain the meaning of the stanzas. It was thus that he came across Edwin Arnold's English translation of the Gita, entitled The Song Celestial. Its message, particularly the description of the man of abiding wisdom (Sthitaprajna) made a deep impression on Gandhi's mind. The verses echoed in Gandhi's mind. He also read Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia, the life and message of the Buddha with even greater interest than he did the Bhagawad Gita. Once he began reading he could not leave the book. The renunciation and compassion of the Buddha left a lasting impression on his mind. A good Christian friend suggested that he should read the Bible. He was not attracted by the Old Testament. But the New Testament produced a different impression. The Sermon on the Mount went straight to his heart, and reminded him of a verse of Shamal Bhatt which said 'For a bowl of water give a goodly meal'.
He also read Carlyle's chapter on the Hero as a prophet and learnt of the Prophet's greatness and bravery and austere living. All these readings left him with the impression that much was common in the religions, and that renunciation was the highest form of religion.
Vegetarianism was not the only field in which Gandhi's vow was put to test. At least on one occasion he was on the verge of succumbing to the temptation of intimacy with women. But as he was sliding, he was alerted by the friend who was with him. He withdrew himself in time and left the scene, literally fleeing to save himself. He believed that it was God who had saved him from the brink.
His truthfulness saved him from leading a life of deceit as many Indian students did. Many who had left their wives in India pretended that they were unmarried, and enjoyed the company of unmarried English girls. When Gandhi found that an old lady was interested in giving him an opportunity to meet and befriend young girls, he promptly wrote to the lady telling her that he was married, and he should not have left her in the dark about it. He asked her to forgive him if she felt that he had abused her hospitality.
In the midst of all this, Gandhi had made use of his time to get through the Matriculation examination of the University and to keep terms and qualify for the Bar. He learned Latin, and did as much reading of the books of Law as was necessary to qualify for the tests. He passed his examinations and was called to the Bar on the 10th of June 1891. He enrolled in the High Court on the 11th, and sailed for India on the 12th of June.