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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART III : IN INDIA AS BARRISTER > The First Shock
16. The First Shock
My brother had been secretary and adviser to the late Ranasaheb of Porbandar before he was installed on his gadi, and my brother at this time suffered under the charge of having given wrong advice when in that office. The matter had gone to the Political Agent who was prejudiced against my brother. Now I had known this officer when in England, and he may be said to have been fairly friendly to me. My brother thought that I should avail myself of the friendship and putting in a good word on his behalf, try to remove the prejudice of the Political Agent. I did not at all like this idea. I should not, I thought, try to take advantage of a trifling acquaintance in England. If my brother was really at fault, what use was my recommendation?
If he was innocent, he should submit a petition in the proper course and, confident of his innocence, face the result. My brother did not like this advice.
“You do not know Kathiawad,” he said, “and you have yet to know the world. Only influence counts here. It is not proper for you, a brother, to shirk your duty, when you can clearly put in a good word about me to an officer you know.”
I could not refuse him, so I went to the officer much against my will. I knew I had no right to approach him and was fully conscious that I was compromising my self-respect. But I sought an appointment and got it. I reminded him of the old acquaintance, but I immediately saw that Kathiawad was different from England; that an officer on leave was not the same as an officer on duty. The Political Agent owned the acquaintance, but the reminder seemed to stiffen him. “Surely you have not come here to abuse that acquaintance, have you ?” appeared to be the meaning of that stiffness, and seemed to be written on his brow.
Nevertheless I opened my case.
The sahib was impatient. “Your brother is an intriguer. I want to hear nothing more from you. I have no time. If your brother has anything to say, let him apply through the proper channel.” The answer was enough, was perhaps deserved. But selfishness is blind. I went on with my story. The sahib got up and said : “You must go now.”
“But please hear me out,” said I. That made him more angry. He called his peon and ordered him to show me the door. I was still hesitating when the peon came in, placed his hands on my shoulders and put me out of the room.
The sahib went away as also the peon, and I departed fretting and fuming. I at once wrote out and sent over a note to this effect : “You have insulted me. You have assaulted me through your peon. If you make no amends, I shall have to proceed against you.”
Quick came the answer through his sowar : “You were rude to me. I asked you to go and you would not. I had no option but to order my peon to show you the door. Even after he asked you to leave the office, you did not do so. He therefore had to use just enough force to send you out. You are at liberty to proceed as you wish.”
With this answer in my pocket, I came home feeling ashamed, and told my brother all that had happened.
He was grieved, but did not know how to console me. He spoke to his vakil friends to find out how to proceed against the sahib. Sir Pherozeshah Mehta happened to be in Rajkot at this time, having come down from Bombay for some case. But how could a junior barrister like me dare to see him? So I sent him the papers of my case, through the vakil who had engaged him and begged for his advice. “Tell Gandhi,” he said, “such things are the common experience of many vakils and barristers.
He is still fresh from England, and hot-blooded. He does not know British officers. If he would earn something and have an easy time here, let him tear up the note and pocket the insult. He will gain nothing by proceeding against the sahib, and on the contrary will very likely ruin himself. Tell him he has yet to know life.”
The advice was as bitter as poison to me, but I had to swallow it.
I pocketed the insult, but also profited by it. “Never again shall I place myself in such a false position, never again shall I try to exploit friendship in this way,” said I to myself, and since then I have never been guilty of a breach of that determination. This shock changed the course of my life.
I was no doubt at fault in having gone to that officer. But his impatience and overbearing anger were out of all proportion to my mistake. It did not justify expulsion.
Now most of my work would naturally be in his court. I had no desire to seek his favour. Indeed, having once threatened to proceed against him, I did not like to remain silent.
Meanwhile I began to learn something of the petty politics of the country. Kathiawad, being group of small states, naturally had its rich crop of petty intrigues.
Princes were always at the mercy of others and ready to lend their ears to flatterers. Even the sahib’s peon had to be coaxed, and the sahib's shirastedar was more than his master, as he was his eyes, his ears and his interpreter. The shirastedar's will was law, and his income was always reputed to be more than the sahib's. This may have been an exaggeration, but he certainly lived beyond his salary.
This atmosphere appeared to me to be poisonous, and how to remain in it was a problem for me.
I was thoroughly depressed and my brother clearly saw it. We both felt that, if I could secure some job, I should be free from this atmosphere of intrigue. But without intrigue a ministership or judgeship was out of the question. And the quarrel with the sahib stood in the way of my practice. I did not know what to do.
In the meantime a Meman firm from Porbandar wrote to my brother making the following offer : “We have business in South Africa. Ours is a big firm, and we have a big case there in the Court, our claim being £ 40,000. It has been going on for a long time. We have engaged the services of the best vakils and barristers. If you sent your brother there, he would be useful to us and also to himself.
He would be able to instruct our lawyer better than ourselves. And he would have the advantage of seeing a new part of the world and of making new acquaintances.”
“How long do you require my services ?” I asked. “And what will be the payment ?”
“Not more than a year. We will pay you a first class return fare and a sum of £ 105, all found.” This was hardly going there as a barrister. It was going as a servant of the firm. But I wanted somehow to leave India. There was also the tempting opportunity of seeing a new country, and of having new experience. Also I could send £ 105 to my brother and help in the expenses of the household. I closed with the offer without any bargaining, and got ready to go to South Africa.