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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART I : CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH >On board the ship
09. On board the ship
I was not used to talking English, and except for Shri Mazmudar all the other passengers in the second saloon were English. I could not speak to them. For I could rarely follow their remarks when they came up to speak to me, and even when I understood I could not reply. I had to frame every sentence in my mind before I could bring it out. I was innocent of the use of knives and forks and had not the boldness to inquire what dishes on the menu were free of meat. I therefore never took meals at table but always had them in my cabin, and they consisted principally of sweets and fruits which I had brought with me. Shri Mazmudar had no difficulty, and he mixed with everybody. He would move about freely on deck, while I hid myself in the cabin the whole day, only going up on deck when there were but few people. Shri Mazmudar kept pleading with me to associate with the passengers and to talk with them freely.
He told me that lawyers should have a long tongue, and related to me his legal experience. He advised me to take every possible opportunity of talking English and not to mind making mistakes which were obviously unavoidable with a foreign tongue. But nothing could make me conquer my shyness. An English passenger, wanting to be nice to me, drew me into conversation. He was older than I. He asked me what I ate, what I was, where I was going, why I was shy, and so on. He also advised me to come to table. He laughed at my insistence on not eating meat, and said in a friendly way when we were in the Red Sea : “It is all very well so far but you will have to change your decision in the Bay of Biscay. And it is so cold in England that one cannot possibly live there without meat.”
“But I have heard that people can live there without eating meat,” I said.
“Rest assured it is a lie,” said he. “No one, to my knowledge, lives there without being a meateater.
Don’t you see that I am not asking you to take liquor, though I do so? But I do think you should eat meat, for you cannot live without it.”
“I thank you for your kind advice, but I have solemnly promised to my mother not to touch meat, and therefore I cannot think of taking it. If it be found impossible to get on without it, I will far rather go back to India than eat meat in order to remain there.”
We entered the Bay of Biscay, but I did not begin to feel the need either of meat or liquor.
We reached Southampton, as far as I remember, on a Saturday. On the boat I had worn a black suit, the white flannel one, which my friends had got me, having been kept especially for wearing when I landed. I had thought that white clothes would suit me better when I stepped ashore, and therefore, I did so in white flannels. Those were the last days of September, and I found I was the only person wearing such clothes. I left in charge of an agent of Grindlay and Co. all my luggage including the keys, seeing that many others had done the same and I thought I must do like them.
Someone on board had advised us to put up at the Victoria Hotel in London. Shri Mazmudar and I accordingly went there. The shame of being the only person in white clothes was already too much for me. And when at the Hotel I was told that I should not get my things from Grindlay’s the next day, it being a Sunday, I felt very bad.
Dr. Mehta to whom I had wired from Southampton, called at about eight o’clock the same evening. He gave me a hearty greeting. He smiled at my being in white flannels. As we were talking, I casually picked up his top-hat, and trying to see how smooth it was, passed my hand over it the wrong way and disturbed the fur. Dr. Mehta looked somewhat angrily at what I was doing and stopped me. But the mischief had been done.
The incident was a warning for the future, and Dr. Mehta gave me my first lesson in European etiquette.
“Do not touch other people’s things,” he said. “Do not ask questions as we usually do in India on first acquaintance; do not talk loudly; never address people as ‘sir’ whilst speaking to them as we do in India; only servants and subordinates address their masters that way.'' And so on and so forth. He also told me that it was very expensive to live in a hotel and recommended that I should live with a private family.
Shri Mazmudar and I found the hotel to be a trying affair. It was also very expensive. There was, however, a Sindhi fellow-passenger from Malta who had become friends with Shri Mazmudar, and as he was not a stranger to London, he offered to find rooms for us. We agreed, and on Monday, as soon as we got our baggage, we paid up our bills and went to the rooms rented for us by the Sindhi friend. I remember my hotel bill came to £ 3, an amount which shocked me. And I had practically starved in spite of this heavy bill! For I could relish nothing. When I did not like one thing, I asked for another, but had to pay for both just the same. The fact is that all this while I had depended on the foodstuffs which I had brought with me from Bombay.
I was very uneasy even in the new rooms. I would continually think of my home and country, and of my mother’s love. At night the tears would stream down my cheeks, and home memories of all sorts made sleep out of the question. It was impossible to share my misery with anyone. And even if I could have done so, where was the use? I knew of nothing that would soothe me. Everything was strange – the people, their ways, and even their dwellings. I was a complete stranger to English etiquette and continually had to be on my guard.
There was the additional inconvenience of the vegetarian vow. Even the dishes that I could eat were tasteless. I thus found myself between Scylla and Charybdis*. England I could not bear, but to return to India was not to be thought of. Now that I had come, I must finish the three years, said the inner voice.
* Scylla is a monster, according to Greek legend, living on the Italian side of the Straits of Messina, and opposite to it is Charybdis, a whirlpool. So the phrase means, being faced with two equally unpleasant alternatives. - Ed.