Mahatma Gandhi's career as writer, activist and lawyer began in 1890s London, inspired by an unusual cause. An excerpt from Ramachandra Guha's new book, 'Gandhi Before India'
Young Mohandas Gandhi may have worn a Gladstone collar, but he did not take much interest in the man after whom it was named. In 1889 William Ewart Gladstone was one of the towering figures of British and (by extension) world politics. With the death of Benjamin Disraeli, Gladstone’s main rival was the new leader of the Conservative Party, Lord Salisbury. They (and their parties) alternated in office, with the Liberals following one set of policies at home and abroad, and the Tories another.
The elite politics of the time was opposed by a growing body of radicals on the left. Karl Marx had died in 1883, but his followers were active in London, planning for world revolution. In 1884 the Fabian Society came into being. This too sought to usher in socialism, albeit by British—that is to say gradualist—methods. In the London chapters of his autobiography, Gandhi does not mention the Liberals or the Tories, the Communists or the Socialists. His interest was taken up instead with a cult of English dissenters possibly even more radical, and certainly very much more obscure.
These were the vegetarians of London. In the window of that restaurant in Farringdon Street Gandhi came across a copy of Henry Salt’s Plea for Vegetarianism. He read it from cover to cover (it was a slim book). Till then, he had been vegetarian by custom and tradition, but from the moment he read Salt he became ‘a vegetarian by choice’. He found that there was a London Vegetarian Society, whose meetings he began to attend. He was so struck by his new creed that he even formed a branch of the Society in the locality where he lived.
The vegetarians whom Gandhi discovered in England had originally taken their inspiration from India. From the Greeks onwards, European travellers in the subcontinent were fascinated by the diet of the Hindus. That a large section subsisted entirely without eating meat repelled some visitors (such as the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama), and deeply impressed others. These Indophiles were particularly struck by the tender care shown to sick or dying animals. Who in Europe could ever conceive of a special hospital for birds? It also came as a surprise among the vegetarians that whereas white soldiers could not survive without beer or beef, Indians seemed to fight perfectly well on a diet of rice and lentils.
The regular, beef-eating Englishman saw vegetarians as a small and perhaps even silly cult—their restaurants to be patronized, if at all, when the purse was running empty. The publisher Grant Richards, writing of the London of the 1890s, the London of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry Salt and their Society, mentions ‘several vegetarian restaurants dotted about between Liverpool Street and St. Paul’s. One in particular I can remember in King Street, Cheapside. One could get a very filling and very horrid meal for sixpence—or was it ninepence? Vegetarianism seems to have made no progress since those days.’
For our visiting Indian, however, the Vegetarian Society was a shelter that saved him. The young Gandhi had little interest in the two great popular passions of late nineteenth-century London, the theatre and sport. Imperial and socialist politics left him cold. However, in the weekly meetings of the vegetarians of London he found a cause, and his first English friends.
At some time—we do not know exactly when, but it must certainly have been into his second year in London—Gandhi came to share rooms with a man named Josiah Oldfield. An Oxford graduate and barrister, now studying to be a doctor, Oldfield was an active member of the London Vegetarian Society. He edited the Society’s journal, where (like Salt) he wrote both on diet and on politics, and where (like Salt again), he exuded a heroic optimism, as in an essay where he claimed that ‘the one tendency that has pervaded humanity...[is] the spirit of progress from bondage towards Liberty.’
Oldfield and Gandhi, the Englishman and the Indian, lived together at 52 St. Stephen’s Gardens, Bayswater, in a house overlooking a shady park. This friendship across the racial divide was singular as well as brave. Gandhi and Oldfield threw parties where guests were served lentil soup, boiled rice and large raisins. On other evenings they sallied together into the world, ‘lecturing at clubs and any other public meetings where we could obtain a hearing for our gospel of peace and health’.
A young Gandhi (seated, extreme right, in the front row) with other members of the Vegetarian Society in London in 1890. Photo courtesy: Gandhi World Foundation
Meanwhile, two other friends, an uncle and nephew respectively, asked Gandhi to interpret the Bhagavad-Gita for them. He read the work with the two men, in the then quite recent translation by Edwin Arnold carrying the poetic title The Song Celestial. The Englishmen, in turn, introduced him to the work of Madame Blavatsky who, after a life spent wandering around the world (including a spell in India), had settled down in London. The founder of Theosophy sought to reconcile religion with science, and Christianity with Hinduism. That her cult was so manifestly sympathetic to Indian traditions impressed young Gandhi. He met Blavatsky as well as Annie Besant, a firebrand socialist and suffragette who had recently abandoned those creeds to embrace Theosophy.
Moving further outwards from his native Hinduism, Gandhi began reading Christian texts, supplied to him by a vegetarian from Manchester. The Book of Genesis sent him to sleep, but the New Testament he found compelling. The Sermon on the Mount in particular ‘went straight to my heart’. The lines about offering one’s cloak to the man who had taken away one’s coat touched him greatly. Comparing it to the Gita, he concluded that both taught that ‘renunciation was the highest form of religion’.
Meanwhile, at the Inner Temple, Gandhi had to pass examinations in (among other subjects) Roman Law, Property Law and Common Law. For the first topic he read an English translation of the Justinian code as well as a larger work of interpretation and analysis, William A. Hunter’s Introduction to Roman Law (third edition, 1885). For the second subject he read Joshua Williams’ Principles of the Law of Property (sixteenth edition, 1887), as well as several compendia of cases. To understand common law he read two textbooks, new editions of which had appeared in 1888—John Indermaur’s Principles of the Common Law and Herbert Brown’s Commentaries on the Common Law. There was also a special section on Equity, for which he consulted the 1887 edition of a book on the subject by Edmund H. T. Snell.
When he was not reading, or re-reading, these books, Gandhi took long walks through the city. He calculated that he walked an average of eight miles a day. As he told the Indian students who came to London after him, walking was ‘a pleasure in the cold climate of England’; besides, for reasons of economy, ‘a brisk walk should be preferred to a ride in a train or a bus’. After a walk, Gandhi felt obliged to wash away the sweat and the dirt. Sometimes he went to a public bath (which cost five pence); at other times, he persuaded his landlady to provide him with a little hot water, into which he dipped a towel or sponge that he then ran over his body.
There were excursions in London and some further afield, with Gandhi once travelling to Portsmouth to attend a Vegetarian Conference. Speeches during the day were followed by a relaxing game of bridge in the evenings. Gandhi was partnered by the landlady of the inn where they were staying. She joked and flirted with him. He was attracted by the banter—it was ‘the first occasion on which a woman, other than my wife, moved me to lust’. Then, as the flirtation got more intense, the excitement confused and shamed him. Remembering his vow to his mother, he got up from the card table, rushing to his room ‘quaking, trembling, and with beating heart, like a quarry escaped from its pursuer’. Although the conference still had some time to run, Gandhi returned the next day to London....
The vegetarians whom Gandhi discovered in England had originally taken their inspiration from India. From the Greeks onwards,European travellers in the subcontinent were fascinated by the diet of the Hindus. That a large section subsisted entirely without eating meat repelled some visitors (such as the portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama), and deeply impressed others.
In the last week of March, 1890—a year and a half after he had left India for England—Mohandas sat his first set of law examinations. When the results were announced he found he had done rather better than in the Bombay Matriculation, coming 6th in a set of 46. His name appeared (for the first time) in The Times, placed alongside other successful candidates, among them a Parsi named Colah and a Bengali named Sarbadhicary, the Indian syllables sounding (and sitting) oddly alongide impeccably Anglo-Saxon names such as Atkin, Barrett, Clark, Maxwell, Murray, Rose and Smith.
In December of the same year Gandhi sat the final examinations. A month later, on 12 January 1891, he was told that he had passed successfully, coming 34th out of 109.
He had now cleared his exams, but he was still some dinners short of the Temple’s prescribed total of seventy-two. He could not return to India until he had attended (albeit not enjoyed) those remaining dinners. His friend and flatmate, Josiah Oldfield, now persuaded him to spend his last days in London writing for The Vegetarian.
It is not uncommon for a writer’s first work to appear in a low-circulation niche magazine. But how many can claim that their debut in print took the form of a six-part series? Through February and March 1890, The Vegetarian carried the byline of M. K. Gandhi, under the heading, ‘Indian Vegetarians—I, II . . .’ etc. An introduction to the caste system inaugurated the series. A later essay explained how Asian vegetarianism differed from its European counterpart. ‘Unlike the English, the Indians do not take each dish separately, but they mix many things together.’ Moreover, ‘each dish is elaborately prepared. In fact, they don’t believe in plain boiled vegetables, but must have them flavoured with plenty of condiments, e.g., pepper, salt, cloves, turmeric, mustard seed, and various other things for which it would be difficult to find English names unless they be those used in medicine.’ The Indian diet was richer and more varied, except in one respect—for ‘the fruit, yes, the all-important fruit, is sadly conspicuous by its absence in the above-mentioned specimen dishes’.
Gandhi’s essays took apart some common myths and misconceptions. If Hindus ‘as a rule are notoriously weak’, this was not because of the absence of meat in their diet. The fault was that of the ‘wretched custom of infant marriage’, which by making girls of twelve have children by boys of sixteen, tended to ‘tell on the strongest constitutions’. The writer also had choice words to say about alcohol, which he termed an ‘enemy of mankind’ and a ‘curse of civilization’, and incidentally also ‘one of the most greatly-felt evils of the British Rule’ in India.
Having criticized child marriage—through personal experience—and alcohol—by seeing its effect on other Indians—the writer then turned to a lyrical appreciation of the shepherd, in his view the perfect specimen of Homo Indicus. His vegetarian diet, and his daily routine in the fields and forests, made the shepherd’s ‘an ideal mode of life. He is perforce regular in his habits, is out of doors [with his flocks] during the greater part of his time, while out he breathes the purest air, has his due amount of exercise, has good and nourishing food and last but not least, is free from many cares which are frequently productive of weak constitutions.’
Gandhi allowed that the shepherd had a flaw—one, not more. For ‘while a Brahmin would have his bath twice a day, and a Vaisya once a day, a shepherd would have only one bath a week’. Otherwise, it was ‘very rare to see any deformity in him...Without being fierce as a tiger, he is yet strong and brave and as docile as a lamb. Without being awe-inspiring, his stature is commanding. Altogether, the Indian shepherd is a very fine specimen of a vegetarian, and will compare very favourably with any meat-eater so far as bodily strength goes’.
Edited excerpts from Gandhi Before India, with permission from Penguin Books India. The book is out in bookstores this week.