India: A Defect of Vision

In 1888, when he was nineteen, and already married for six years, Gandhi went to England to study law. It was a brave thing to do. Not the English law—which, however alien to a Hindu of 1888, however unconnected with his complicated rites and his practice of magic, could be mugged up, like another series of mantras—not the law, but the voyage itself. Hindu India, decaying for centuries, constantly making itself archaic, had closed up; and the rules of Gandhi’s Gujarati merchant caste—at one time great travelers—now forbade travel to foreign countries. Foreign countries were polluting to pious Hindus; and no one of the caste had been to England before.

To please his mother Gandhi had taken vows not to touch wine, meat, or women while abroad. But these vows did not satisfy everybody. One section of the caste formally declared the young man an outcaste. But Gandhi, though timid, was obstinate. For a reason which he never makes clear—he was virtually uneducated, had never even read a newspaper—he passionately wanted to go to England. He began to be afraid that the caste might prevent him going; and, two months earlier than he had planned, he took a ship from Bombay to Southampton.

And this is how, in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, written nearly forty years later, when he had become the Mahatma, Gandhi remembers the great adventure (the translation is by his secretary, Mahadev Desai): “I did not feel at all sea-sick…. I was innocent of the use of knives and forks…. I therefore never took meals at table but always had them in my cabin, and they consisted principally of sweets and fruits I had brought with me…. We entered the Bay of Biscay, but I did not begin to feel the need either of meat or liquor…. However, we reached Southampton, as far as I remember, on a Saturday. On the boat I had worn a black suit, the white flannel one, which my friends had got me, having been kept especially for wearing when I landed. I had thought that white clothes would suit me better when I stepped ashore, and therefore I did so in white flannels. Those were the last days of September, and I found I was the only person wearing such clothes.”

That is the voyage: an internal adventure of anxieties felt and food eaten, with not a word of anything seen or heard that did not directly affect the physical or mental well-being of the writer. The inward concentration is fierce, the self-absorption complete. Southampton is lost in that embarrassment (and rage) about the white flannels. The name of the port is mentioned once, and that is all, as though the name is description enough. That it was late September was important only because it was the wrong time of year for white flannels; it is not a note about the weather. Though Gandhi spent three years in England, there is nothing in his autobiography…

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