THE WAY TO PRETORIA
I soon came in contact with the Christian Indians living in Durban. The Court
Interpreter, Mr. Paul, was a Roman Catholic. I made his acquaintance, as also that of the
late Mr. Subhan Godfrey, then a teacher under the Protestant Mission, and father of James
Godfery who as a member of the South African Deputation, visited India in 1924. I likewise
met the late Parsi Rustomji and the late Adamji Miyakhan about the same time. All these
friends, who up to then had never met one another except on business, came ultimately into
close contact, as we shall see later.
Whilst I was thus widening the circle of my acquaintance, the firm received a letter
from their lawyer saying that preparations should be made for the case, and that Abdulla
Sheth should go to Pretoria himself or send representative.
Abdulla Sheth gave me this letter to read, and asked me if I would go to Pretoria. 'I
can only say after I have understood the case from you,' said I. 'At present I am at a
loss to know what I have to do there.' He thereupon asked his clerks to explain the case
As I began to study the case, I felt as though I ought to begin from the A B C of the
subject. During the few days I had had at Zanzibar, I had been to the court to see the
work there. A Parsi lawyer was examining a witness and asking him question regarding
credit and debit entries in account books. It was all Greek to me. Book-keeping I had
learnt neither at school nor during my stay in England. And the case for which I had come
to South Africa was mainly about accounts. Only one who knew accounts could understand and
explain it. The clerk went on talking about this debited and that credited, and I felt
more and more confused. I did not know what a P. Note meant. I failed to find the word in
the dictionary. I revealed my ignorance to the clerk, and I learnt from him that a P. Note
meant a promisory note. I purchased a book on book-keeping and studied it. That gave me
some confidence. I understood the case. I saw that Abdulla Sheth, who did not know how to
keep accounts, had so much practical knowledge that he could quickly solve intricacies of
book-keeping. I told him that I was prepared to go to Pretoria.
'Where will you put up?' asked the Sheth. 'Wherever you want me to,' said I. 'Then I
shall write to our lawyer. He will arrange for your lodgings. I shall also write to my
Meman friends there, but I would not advise you to stay with them. The other party has
great influence in Pretoria. Should any one of them manage to read our private
correspondence, it might do us much harm. The more you avoid familiarity with them, the
better for us.'
'I shall stay where your lawyer puts me up, or I shall find out independent lodgings.
Pray don't worry. Not a soul shall know anything that is confidential between us. But I do
intend cultivating the acquaintance of the other party. I should like to be friends with
them. I would try, if possible, to settle the case out of court. After all Tyeb Sheth is a
relative of yours.'
Sheth Tyeb Haji Khan Muhammad was a near relative of Abdulla Sheth.
The mention of a probable settlement somewhat startled the Sheth, I could see. But I
had already been six or seven days in Durban, and we now knew and understood each other. I
was no longer a 'white elephant.' So he said:
'Y...es, I see. There would be nothing better than a settlement out of court. But we
are all relatives and know one another very well indeed. Tyeb Sheth is not a man to
consent to a settlement easily. With the slightest unwariness on our part, he would screw
all sorts of things out of us, and do us down in the end. So please think twice before you
'Don't be anxious about that,' said I. 'I need not talk to Tyeb Sheth, or for that
matter to anyone else, about the case. I would only suggest to him to come to an
understanding, and so save a lot of unnecessary litigation.'
On the seventh or eighth day after my arrival, I left Durban. A first class seat was
booked for me. It was usual there to pay five shillings extra, if one needed a bedding.
Abdulla Sheth insisted that I should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy and pride and
with a view to saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla Sheth warned me. 'Look, now,'
said he, 'this is a different country from India. Thank God, we have enough and to spare.
Please do not stint yourself in anything that you may need.'
I thanked him and asked him not to be anxious.
The train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. Beddings used to be
provided at this station. A railway servant came and asked me if I wanted one. 'No,' said
I, 'I have one with me.' He went away. But a passenger came next, and looked me up and
down. He saw that I was a 'coloured' man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in
again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and
said, 'Come along, you must go to the van compartment.'
'But I have a first class ticket,' said I.
'That doesn't matter,' rejoined the other. 'I tell you, you must go to the van
'I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on
going on in it.'
'No, you won't,' said the official. 'You must leave this compartment, or else I shall
have to call a police constable to push you out.'
'Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily.'
The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken
out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat
in the waiting room, keeping my hand-bag with me, and leaving the other luggage where it
was. The railway authorities had taken charge of it.
It was winter, and winter in the higher regions of South Africa is severely cold.
Maritzburg being at a high altitude, the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat was in my
luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and
shivered. There was no light in the room. A passenger came in at about midnight and
possibly wanted to talk to me. But I was in no mood to talk.
I began to think of my duty. Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or
should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after
finishing the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my
obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial only a symptom of the
deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and
suffer hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that
would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice.
So I decided to take the next available train to Pretoria.
The following morning I sent a long telegram to the General manager of the Railway and
also informed Abdulla Sheth, who immediately met the General Manager. The Manager
justified the conduct of the railway authorities, but informed him that he had already
instructed the Station Master to see that I reached my destination safely. Abdulla Sheth
wired to the Indian merchants in Maritzburg and to friends in other places to meet me and
look after me. The merchants came to see me at the station and tried to comfort me by
narrating their own hardships and explaining that what had happened to me was nothing
unusual. They also said that Indians travelling first or second class had to expect
trouble from railway officials and white passengers. The day was thus spent in listening
to these tales of woe. The evening train arrived. There was a reserved berth for me. I now
purchased at Maritzburg the bedding ticket I had refused to book at Durban.
The train took me to Charlestown.