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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART II : IN ENGLAND AS STUDENT > Playing the English Gentleman
 

11. Playing the English Gentleman

Meanwhile my friend had not ceased to worry about me. He one day invited me to go to the theatre. Before the play we were to dine together at the Holborn Restaurant.

The friend had planned to take me to this restaurant evidently imagining that modesty would prevent me from asking any questions. And it was a very big company of diners in the midst of which my friend and I sat sharing a table between us. The first course was soup. I wondered what it might be made of, but did not dare ask the friend
about it. I therefore summoned the waiter. My friend saw the movement and sternly asked across the table what was the matter. With considerable hesitation I told him that I wanted to inquire if the soup was a vegetable soup. “You are too clumsy for decent society,” he angrily exclaimed. “If you cannot behave yourself, you had better go.

Feed in some other restaurant and await me outside.” This delighted me. Out I went. There was a vegetarian restaurant close by, but it was closed. So I went without food that night. I accompanied my friend to the theatre, but he never said a word about the scene I had created. On my part of course there was nothing to say.

That was the last friendly quarrel we had. It did not affect our relations in the least. I could see and appreciate the love underlying all my friend’s efforts, and my respect for him was all the greater on account of our differences in thought and action.

But I decided that I should put him at ease, that I should assure him that I would be clumsy no more, but try to become polished and make up for my vegetarianism by cultivating other accomplishments which fitted one for polite society. And for this purpose I undertook the all too impossible task of becoming an English gentleman.

The clothes after the Bombay cut that I was wearing were, I thought, unsuitable for English society, and I got new ones at the Army and Navy Stores. I also went in for a chimney-pot hat costing nineteen shillings – an excessive price in those days. Not content with this, I wasted ten pounds on an evening suit made in Bond Street, the centre of fashionable life in London; and got my good and noble-hearted brother to send me a double watch chain of gold. It was not correct to wear a readymade tie and I learnt the art of tying one for myself. While in India the mirror had been a luxury permitted on the days when the family barber gave me a shave.

Here I wasted ten minutes every day before a huge mirror, watching myself arranging my tie and parting my hair in the correct fashion.

My hair was by no means soft, and every day it meant a regular struggle with the brush to keep it in position. Each time the hat was put on and off, the hand would automatically move towards the head to adjust the hair, not to mention the other civilized habit of the hand every now and then doing the same thing when sitting in polished society.

As if all this were not enough to make me look the thing, I directed my attention to other details that were supposed to go towards the making of an English gentleman. I was told it was necessary for me to take lessons in dancing, French, and elocution or speechmaking.

French was not only the language of neighbouring France, but it was a language understood all over Europe where I had a desire to travel.

I decided to take dancing lessons at a class and paid down £ 3 as fees for a term. I must have taken about six lessons in three weeks.

But it was beyond me to achieve anything like rhythmic motion. I could not follow the piano and hence found it impossible to keep time. What then was I to do? The recluse in the fable kept a cat to keep off the rats, and then a cow to feed the cat with milk, and a man to keep the cow and so on.

My ambitions also grew like the family of the recluse. I thought I should learn to play the violin in order to cultivate an ear for Western music. So I invested £ 3 in a violin and something more in fees.

I sought a third teacher to give me lessons in elocution and paid him a preliminary fee of a guinea. He recommended Bell’s Standard Elocutionist as the textbook, which I purchased. And I began with a speech of Pitt’s.

But soon I began to ask myself what the purpose of all this was.

I had not to spend a lifetime in England, I said to myself. What then was the use of learning elocution?

And how could dancing make a gentleman of me? The violin I could learn even in India. I was a student and ought to go on with my studies. I should qualify myself to become a barrister. If my character made a gentleman of me, so much the better. Otherwise I should give up the ambition.

These and similar thoughts possessed me, and I expressed them in a letter which I addressed to the elocution teacher, requesting him to excuse me from further lessons.

I had taken only two or three. I wrote a similar letter to the dancing teacher, and went personally to the violin teacher with a request to dispose of the violin for any price
it might fetch. She was rather friendly to me, so I told her how I had discovered that I was pursuing a false idea. She encouraged me in my decision to make a complete change.

This infatuation must have lasted about three months. Being particular about dress persisted for years. But henceforward I became a student.