London played both active and passive roles in Gandhi’s life. It was where he became a man and a lawyer, and where he first played high-stakes politics. British law shaped him; the orderly part of his system was based squarely on the idea of staying within the law, and expecting your opponents to do the same
Roderick Matthews | 27 Sep, 2019
Mahatma Gandhi’s statue, Tavistock Square, London (Photo: Alamy)
HERE WERE THREE PRIME INFLUENCES on the development of Mohandas K Gandhi.
The first was his mother, from whom he learned a practical, domestic kind of Hinduism, with Jain overtones. The second was his stay in London as a law student, which gave him ethical and intellectual perspectives that defined the whole of the rest of his life. The third was his time in South Africa, where he organised resistance to political injustice for the first time. But of the three, it was London that did most to make him an original thinker.
After his crucial initial visit in 1888-1891, he made four further trips to the city between 1906 and 1931. Across these years, the educational, financial and political power that resided in and emanated from London is now scarcely imaginable. But as the British Empire enjoyed its zenith, London was hard to avoid, especially for Indians who needed to get things done, and it was this primacy that brought Gandhi to London in a variety of different roles, as student, supplicant, politician and statesman.
Very little of the London that Gandhi knew would be familiar to his eyes today. The horses are gone, the population is much more varied and many of the places where he lived have fallen victim to bombers or developers. The only traces of his presence are two blue plaques at addresses where he stayed and two statues, both erected long after his death.
During his first stay in London he kept a diary, but nothing of it survives, except for a few early pages. This is a great loss, because this first visit is undoubtedly the most interesting of the five. It certainly had the greatest impact upon him.
He arrived in September 1888, as a shy young man, to read for the Bar. He wasn’t confident in English, and was almost entirely ignorant of local ways. His first encounter with a lift, in the Victoria Hotel, Northumberland Street, left him shaken. His initial experiences with English food were no less disturbing. He didn’t like what he ordered, and when he chose something else, he was shocked to learn that he had to pay for both dishes.
It was all strange, and alarmingly expensive. Most of all, he felt burdened by the three promises he had given his mother—to avoid meat, strong drink and girls. London was hardly the place to be bound by such rules. Many people were drawn there explicitly to find at least two, and possibly all three, of these things.
Whatever else may have been wrong with the British and their Empire, the young Gandhi was exposed to more exotic influences in London from 1888 to 1891 than he ever would have encountered in Kathiawar
There was much in London that made him miserable. He didn’t have the right clothes for the weather, he struggled to control his expenditure and the endless reading of legal textbooks was very hard. Above all, he felt terrible homesickness. He writes of sitting alone in his room, with tears pouring down his face.
He was only 19 years old at the time, and the cultural, emotional and intellectual leap he had undertaken was vast. It is easy to be amused by his attempts to fit in—buying smart suits, taking violin lessons, hiring a dance teacher—but these forays into British life are also strangely commendable, if not actively endearing. He really did try to become a different, more accomplished person. He hardly yet realised that his destiny was to excel in intellectual, political and ethical fields that lay far beyond the ordinary concerns of anyone who tried to teach him the foxtrot.
But when he finally stumbled across what might be described as ‘alternative’ London, he began to thrive. Whatever else may have been wrong with the British and their Empire, the young Gandhi was exposed to more exotic influences in London from 1888 to 1891 than he ever would have encountered in Kathiawar. These influences are well known, and he documents them in some detail in his autobiography, The Story of My
Experiments With Truth.
The story starts with food. Gandhi was plagued by the unpalatable fare he was served wherever he went, from his first night in the Victoria Hotel, through the cooking of his Anglo-Indian landlady, to the compulsory dinners he had to eat as part of his qualification in the Inner Temple (six per term). We can only sympathise with him, faced with Victorian boiled vegetables, which he found ‘tasteless and insipid’.
Gandhi’s landlady at 20 Barons Court Road, whose name, alas, we do not know, told him that specialist vegetarian restaurants existed uptown. In late October 1888, he found one called The Central Restaurant, at 16 St Bride Street, off Farringdon Street (now an office block). This turned out to be his looking glass entry into another, stranger world.
It was a pamphlet he found there that introduced him to the ethical philosophy of vegetarianism. He writes of his joy in finding out that there were substantial intellectual arguments not to eat meat. Instantly, he became an enthusiastic follower of the cause, and ended up writing articles for vegetarian magazines.
HE ALSO MET NEW PEOPLE IN THE café, people who were neither fellow Indians, nor other trainee barristers. The most interesting were two young men who asked him, because he was clearly an Indian, to help them understand the Bhagavad Gita, which they were trying to read in Sanskrit. Gandhi had to admit that he hadn’t read it in any Indian language, and this led him to Edwin Arnold’s blank verse translation, The Song Celestial. The influence this was to have upon his later career can hardly be underestimated.
Gandhi’s landlady at 20 Barons Court Road, whose name, alas, we do not know, told him that specialist vegetarian restaurants existed uptown. In late October 1888, he found one called The Central Restaurant, at 16 St Bride Street, off Farringdon Street (now an office block). This turned out to be his looking glass entry into another, stranger world
‘Abstaining from attachment to the work, abstaining from rewardment in the work while yet one doeth it full faithfully, saying ‘‘Tis right to do!’—that is ‘true’ act and abstinence.’ These lines deftly resolve the contradictions inherent within principles, political action and personal interest, and clearly relate to his mature thinking. Though he admitted he needed a dictionary to help him, it is astonishing to think that the Mahatma first read definitions of sanyasa and tyaga in English.
The two vegetarian seekers after truth also took him along to a meeting of the Theosophical Society, where he heard a lecture by Mme Blavatsky herself and later met Annie Besant. This was another huge turning point. Here were White people assuring him that Hinduism was not all superstitious junk, which is what Christian missionaries had always told him. This propelled him into religious broadmindedness, traces of which can be found in all his subsequent theorising.
After these adventures, he was a regular and confident guest in London intellectual circles. He met Edward Carpenter, the social critic whose great work, Civilisation: Its Cause And Cure, bears an obvious relationship to many of his own attitudes. He also met Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist republican, and Josiah Oldfield, founder of the Esoteric Christian Union, who introduced him to the Sermon on the Mount.
He had also, by then, developed an independent style of living. He left his landlady behind and took a suite of rooms but, believing this to be too extravagant, he ended up in one room in Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, where he ‘invested in a stove’ and fed himself on a diet of porridge, bread and cocoa.
The oppositional tone of the ideas he was absorbing, and their secure foundation in the liberal tradition of Western thinking, broadened Gandhi’s intellectual horizons on a scale coextensive with what might be called modernism. This made him a very unusual Indian by the time he had reached his 21st year.
His next two trips to London, in 1906 and 1909, had less of an impact on him, but the first led directly to the full formation of satyagraha as a tool of opposition.
He arrived in October 1906 to join a delegation to the British government on behalf of immigrant Indians in South Africa’s Transvaal province, to petition against the harsh registration rules enforced by what was known as the Black Act. The delegation included Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownaggree, both of whom were MPs at the time. After speaking to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Elgin (an ex-Viceroy of India), they met the Under Secretary for the Colonies, one Winston Churchill, then a Liberal. Churchill was sympathetic and promised to lobby for them. Lord Elgin declared in Parliament that the Black Act would not stand.
But it was all a charade. The government of Transvaal had already been promised a new constitution, with a free hand on legislation, ‘no matter how offensive’. Unaware of this, Gandhi wrote home on the eve of his departure: ‘The lesson we have drawn is that we may rely upon the British sense of fair play and justice.’ His subsequent outrage at the government’s betrayal moved him to undertake the first full blown satyagraha agitation.
It was unsuccessful, so he was back in London three years later, to petition against the registration rules once more. He didn’t want to come, but his fellow activists insisted. Lord Curzon, another ex-Viceroy, supported the cause, and the Colonial Secretary, now Lord Crewe, again seemed persuaded. But General Jan Smuts, a minister in the Transvaal government, was also in London and managed to scupper any concessions.
This visit of 1909 is, however, memorable for two things.
First, on October 24th, Gandhi made a speech in Bayswater at a dinner to celebrate Dussehra, where Vinayak Damodar Savarkar also spoke. This was a highly charged meeting, held in the aftermath of the first Indian-inspired political assassination on the streets of London; Sir William Curzon Wyllie had been shot dead on July 1st by one of Savarkar’s followers. It was a rare treat for any Indian there that night to enjoy the premier advocates of violence and non-violence on the same bill. Savarkar lauded Rama and Durga as righteous killers; Gandhi urged Indians to revere the pure and blameless Rama, not the blood-soaked Durga.
The other significant product of the visit was Gandhi’s masterpiece, Hind Swaraj, which he wrote on the boat home to South Africa. He completed it in about nine days of feverish writing—some with his left hand whenever his right became too painful. A head full of Curzon, Crewe, Smuts and Savarkar had given him plenty to say about colonialism, Indian identity and non-violence.
The oppositional tone of the ideas he was absorbing, and their secure foundation in the liberal tradition of Western thinking, broadened Gandhi’s intellectual horizons on a scale coextensive with what might be called modernism. This made him a very unusual Indian by the time he had reached his 21st year
His next visit to London came about because he decided, in early 1914, that he wished to go back to India and was instructed by Gopal Krishna Gokhale to return via London, where he was at the time. So, Gandhi sailed for England in July, only to discover on arrival in early August that war had broken out, with Gokhale stranded in Paris.
Gandhi took rooms at 60 Talbot Road, Bayswater (now demolished) and reflected upon what he should do. Feeling it was his duty to help the Empire in war, he offered to set up a volunteer ambulance corps, much as he had done over a decade before, during the Boer War. Lord Crewe, now Secretary for India, accepted his offer, and Gandhi found himself under the command of a Colonel Baker and subject to military discipline. He didn’t like it, or Baker, and neither did his fellow Indian volunteers. Lord Crewe’s Under Secretary, Charles Roberts, was drawn in and managed to broker a face-saving compromise.
But Gandhi’s military training brought on pleurisy and pain in his legs, exacerbated by the fasts and other rigours he had put himself through in recent years. As he lay on his back, ‘making the best of a bad job’, his Indian doctor and his friends, including the returned Gokhale, urged him to restore his strength by expanding his meagre diet. They all wanted him to drink cow’s milk. He refused, having foresworn it years before because of his concerns about animal cruelty, which he considered religious.
At this point, Charles Roberts’ wife, Lady Cecilia Roberts, suggested he drank ‘malted milk’, which she had been assured was not milk but ‘a chemical preparation with all the properties of milk’. Gandhi tried it and instantly recognised it as flavoured, powdered milk. She was mortified, but he generously forgave her.
His health did not improve, and Charles Roberts ‘strongly advised’ him to return to India. So, having met Jinnah for the first time at a celebratory dinner, Gandhi sailed away in December, thus avoiding the fogs, smogs and months of bitter cold that probably would have killed him. (I have an authorial interest in this story. Charles and Lady Cecilia Roberts were my great-grandparents.)
Finally, Gandhi came to London for the last time, in 1931, to discuss India’s future constitutional arrangements at a Second Round Table Conference; the Congress had boycotted the first. He came as the sole representative of the Congress, but this was not a matter of ego; it was a symbolic act, to demonstrate that India had one voice.
The Conference was held in St James’ Palace, ran from September to December 1931, while Gandhi stayed in unglamorous quarters at Kingsley Hall in the East End. He attended all the sessions and even chaired the Minorities Committee. But what with the other commitments he constantly took on, he often only managed two or three hours’ sleep per night. This punishing workload wore him out, while his habitual disinterest in fine detail made his sole presence less effective than it could have been, and he struggled to carry sufficient weight to dominate proceedings. Politically, the whole thing came to nothing.
But as an exercise in public relations, this last visit was a triumph. By then he was world-famous as an icon and a spokesman for millions. He was mobbed, applauded and lionised wherever he went, and his unpretentious charm won him friends of both high and humble social station. He met Charlie Chaplin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, while he daily rubbed shoulders with ordinary East Enders, who rather took to him.
SOME OF THAT POPULARITY survives to this day, and there are two statues of him in London. One was erected in Tavistock Square in 1968. The other is in Parliament Square, where, since 2015, he has stood alongside Smuts and Churchill.
London played both active and passive roles in Gandhi’s life. It was where he became a man and a lawyer, and where he first played high-stakes politics. British law shaped him; the orderly part of his system was based squarely on the idea of staying within the law, and expecting your opponents to do the same. London’s activists energised him; his disciplined method of resisting the powers that be, and its relation to a person’s inner life, can clearly be traced to some of the early contacts he made in London, as can his distaste for industrial ‘civilisation’. And without doubt, the rebuffs he experienced in 1906 and 1909 pushed him to take important steps along his path to radicalisation.
Above all, London, and the experiences it gave him, made him unique, something more than a sadhu. South Africa was a training ground, India gave him a platform and a great cause, but London was never far from the core of his methods and beliefs.