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Gandhi: An Autobiography - The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
Born on 2nd October 1869 in Porbandar, at school Gandhi was very shy and a mediocre
student. At the age of 13 he was married as a Hindu. He goes on to state that child marriage
is not something he supports. He was born and bred to not eat meat but a
school friend who was strong and brave told Gandhi that these traits were due to eating
meat and convinced him to try some. He tried some goat’s meat and continued for about
a year in secret, before deciding that lying to his parents was worse than not being a
meat-eater and he never ate meat again. For a short while Gandhi also took up smoking
with his friend, stealing coppers from servant’s pocket money to purchase the cigarettes. Once
he grew up though, he had no desire to smoke and saw smoking as dirty and harmful.
At the age of 16, Gandhi’s father died. A few days later his wife gave birth, but
their child only survived a few days. After passing his final school exams, Gandhi
went to England to study law. He was given his mother’s permission by vowing not to
touch wine, women or meat. He left from Bombay and set sail on 4th September 1888.
Once arriving at Southampton, he went straight to London, staying first at a hotel and then
with an English family. He tried to become an English gentleman and assimilate into society
by reading newspapers, buying a hat and learning to tie a tie. He also briefly took dancing
lessons and was taught to play the violin, but neither of these two things lasted more
than a few months. What then followed was a period of intense
study and modest living. However, in his last year in England in 1890, he did travel to
Paris to a great exhibition, where the prime attraction was the newly built Eiffel Tower.
After three years in England, Gandhi passed his exams and became qualified to practice
law. He returned to India in the summer of 1891 to find that his mother had passed away
while he was abroad. Gandhi worked in the High Court in Bombay,
gaining experience and studying Indian law. However, in one particular case he was due
to cross-examine a witness but his shyness rendered him speechless. He handed back his
fee for the case and left Bombay, returning to Rajkot where his elder brother lived, and
set up an office there. In 1893, Gandhi was offered a contract from
an Indian firm who were involved in a court case in South Africa. Gandhi jumped at the
chance of a new experience and seeing a new country and set off in April, leaving behind
his wife and their now two children. After several stops in places such as Mombasa and
Zanzibar, Gandhi arrived in Natal in May. Whilst in South Africa Gandhi suffered many
prejudices such as being kicked out of first class on a train despite having a ticket and
being asked to eat dinner in his room so as not to offend other hotel guests in the restaurant,
all because of his colour. After travelling to Pretoria, he met some
Christian friends and began to study the Christian religion but vowed not to embrace any other
religion before he fully understood his own – Hinduism.
It was the year he spent in Pretoria that gave him a true knowledge in the legal practice
and where he gained the confidence to be a successful lawyer. After winning the Indian
company’s case, Gandhi returned to Durban in Natal.
There he assisted fellow Indians in opposing a bill that denied them the right to vote.
He continued his social activism by helping found the Natal Indian Congress which helped
the Indian community unite as a political force.
After three years in South Africa, he returned to India for six months to pick up his wife
and two sons and brought them all back to Durban.
However on arrival to the port Gandhi discovered that many of the white residents of Durban
were not happy with him and he was charged with:
1. Taking part in unmerited condemnation of Natal whites while he was in India.
2. Trying to swamp Natal with Indians by bringing over shiploads of passengers to achieve this
aim. Both accusations were false so Gandhi went
ashore. He was soon surrounded by a crowd who threw stones, bricks and rotten eggs at
him. Luckily the police soon arrived and escorted him to his friend’s house. The crowds would
not disperse so Gandhi eventually fled the house, disguised as a police constable. He
made a statement saying he did not want to prosecute anyone who attacked him.
Gandhi proved his innocence of both charges through being interviewed by the press and
they declared him innocent. Gandhi and his wife had two more sons in South Africa after
which he took a vow of celibacy. In 1900, soon after the Boer War broke out,
Gandhi and a group of his friends created an Ambulance corps, carrying the wounded on
stretchers within the line of fire, participating on the side of the British Empire.
Once he was relieved of war duties, Gandhi returned to India. He went on a tour of the
country, travelling third class to acquaint himself with the hardships of third class
passengers. The journey spanned from Calcutta to Benares, Agra, Jaipur, Palanpur and Rajkot,
spending one day in each city. He then went back to South Africa, this time leaving his
family back in India. Gandhi set up an office in Johannesburg. He
worked as an editor for the weekly newspaper, “Indian Opinion”. Around this time Gandhi
was strongly influenced by a book he read called “Unto This Last” by John Ruskin.
Gandhi took three main principles from the book’s teaching:
1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
2. A lawyer’s work has the same value as a barber’s, in so much as they all have
the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
3. A life of labour, i.e. manual labour, is a life worth living.
Gandhi changed his life according to these points and created the Phoenix Settlement,
a farm where he would live with others and publish the Indian Opinion newspaper. Everyone
working there would receive the same salary regardless of race, nationality or job type.
Gandhi tried to persuade his European friends at the settlement to get married and also
invited Indian friends to bring their families over from home. It wasn’t long until the
settlement had developed into a small village. In Phoenix, simplicity was introduced where
possible and personal physical labour was preferred. For example, instead of buying
bread from the bakers, they began to make their own. Gandhi brought his family over
again and the children were happy to help out with the work.
Then in 1906, the British government declared war against the Zulus in Natal. Gandhi created
the Indian ambulance corps again, working on the front line, this time helping carry
and nurse innocent, wounded Zulus that had been shot by mistake by the British soldiers.
After the so called “rebellion” was coming to an end, Gandhi went to Johannesburg.
At this time Gandhi began further experimenting with his diet. He practiced fasting and later
a pure fruit diet, his ambition being to live the life of the poorest people. At other times
he gave up salt and milk, thinking they were not necessary. His belief on fasting was that
it was very helpful when working towards self-restraint. At the outbreak of the First World War, Gandhi
was arriving in England on a boat. He planned to participate in an ambulance corps once
again but fell ill. The doctors suggested a temperate climate might aid his recovery,
so he returned to India in 1915. Previously while he was in South Africa, Gandhi’s
thoughts had led to him developing what was to be called “satyagraha”. It translates
roughly as “insistence to the truth” and refers to non-violent protest and resistance.
In India, Gandhi joined the National Congress. He was now a strong public speaker and negotiator
after years of practice. He was asked by Indian labourers in Champaran to help them as they
were being supressed, taxed and forced to grow crops for their mainly British landlords.
Gandhi visited them and proposed satyagraha, i.e. non-violent mass civil disobedience.
He was arrested for creating unrest and was ordered to leave but he refused. Hundreds
of thousands of people protested and he was released. Gandhi led the protests against
the landlords who eventually signed an agreement offering more compensation to the tenants.
After consulting with friends, Gandhi decided to open primary schools in six villages. All
the villagers had to agree to, was to provide board and lodging for the teachers. Gandhi
then successfully appealed publically for voluntary teachers.
His next step was to improve the sanitary conditions of the villages. For this he borrowed
doctors from other roles for periods of six months or so.
In 1918, Gandhi led another campaign of satyagraha in Kheda, which had been hit by floods. Many
peasants there were facing famine and wanted relief from tax payments until the famine
was over. In the end after several months, the government agreed to the delayed payment
of the taxes. During the First World War, Gandhi agreed
to actively recruit fellow Indians to help the war effort, despite not willing to injure
or kill anybody himself. He believed that the willing of Indians to help the British
Empire in its hour of need would quicken and increase the chances of racial distinctions
being eradicated within the Empire against Indians.
Around this time, Gandhi also tried to appeal to Indian Muslims and supported them in many
of their causes. As a result, Gandhi became popular in both the Hindu and Muslim communities
and was able to promote and instigate his form of peaceful resistance across India against
the British rule. Many peaceful civilians were killed by British
troops with the intention to prevent a violent uprising, but it only made Gandhi more popular
and the movement stronger. He led the Congress to reorganise itself with
a new constitution which would work towards complete independence.
Gandhi thought the removal of poverty would help establish independence. One way to achieve
this would be to advocate the wearing of homespun cloth instead of British-made clothing materials.
He tried to get as many Indians as possible to make the garments, male or female, rich
or poor. Gandhi finishes his autobiography by stating
that his latest principal experiments, all made through the Congress, have left history
still in the making and his conclusions on the experiments are not yet decisive. History
now proves that his movement for Indian independence was not only ultimately successful, but he
has influenced and inspired freedom and civil rights movements throughout the world.