The heart's earnest and pure desire is always
fulfilled. In my own experience I have often seen this
rule verified. Service of the poor has been my heart's
desire, and it has always thrown me amongst the poor and
enabled me to identify myself with them.
Although the members of the Natal Indian Congress
included the Colonial-born Indians and the Clerical
class, the unskilled wage- earners, the indentured
labourers were still outside its pale. The Congress was
not yet theirs. They could not afford to belong to it by
paying the subscription and becoming its members. The
Congress could win their attachment only by serving them.
An opportunity offered itself when neither the Congress
nor I was really ready for it. I had put in scarcely
three or four months' practice, and the Congress also was
still in its infancy, when a Tamil man in tattered
clothes, head-gear in hand, two front teeth broken and
his mouth bleeding, stood before me trembling and
weeping. He had been heavily belaboured by his master. I
learnt all about him from my clerk, who was a Tamilian.
Balasundaram - as that was the visitor's name - was
serving his indenture under a well-known European
resident of Durban. The master, getting angry with him,
had lost self-control, and had beaten Balasundaram
severely, breaking two of his teeth.
I sent him to a doctor. In those days only white
doctors were available. I wanted a certificate from the
doctor about the nature of the injury Balasundaram had
sustained. I secured the certificate, and straightway
took the injured man to the magistrate, to whom I
submitted his affidavit. The magistrate was indignant
when he read it, and issued a summons against the
It was far from my desire to get the employer
punished. I simply wanted Balasundaram to be released
from him. I read the law about indentured labour. If an
ordinary servant left service without giving notice, he
was liable to be sued by his master in a civil court.
With the indentured labourer the case was entirely
different. He was liable, in similar circumstances, to be
proceeded against in a criminal court and to be
imprisoned on conviction. That is why Sir William Hunter
called the indenture system almost as bad as slavery.
Like the slave the indentured labourer was the property
of his master.
There were only two ways of releasing Balasundaram:
either by getting the Protector of Indentured Labourers
to cancel his indenture or transfer him to someone else,
or by getting Balasundaram's employer to release him. I
called on the latter and said to him: 'I do not want to
proceed against you and get you punished. I think you
realize that you have severely beaten the man. I shall be
satisfied if you will transfer the indenture to someone
else.' To this he readily agreed. I next saw the
Protector. He also agreed, on condition that I found a
So I went off in search of an employer. He had to be a
European, as no Indians could employ indentured labour.
At that time I knew very few Europeans. I met one of
them. He very kindly agreed to take on Balasundaram. I
gratefully acknowledged his kindness. The magistrate
convicted Balasundaram's employer, and recorded that he
had undertaken to transfer the indenture to someone else.
Balasundaram's case reached the ears of every
indentured labourer, and I came to be regarded as their
friend. I hailed this connection with delight. A regular
stream of indentured labourers began to pour into my
office, and I got the best opportunity of learning their
joys and sorrows.
The echoes of Balasundaram's case were heard in far
off Madras. Labourers from different parts of the
province, who went to Natal on indenture, came to know of
this case through their indentured brethren.
There was nothing extraordinary in the case itself,
but the fact that there was someone in Natal to espouse
their cause and publicly work for them gave the
indentured labourers a joyful surprise and inspired them
I have said that Balasundaram entered my office,
head-gear in hand. There was a peculiar pathos about the
circumstance which also showed our humiliation. I have
already narrated the incident when I was asked to take
off my turban. A practice had been forced upon every
indentured labourer and every Indian stranger to take off
his head- gear when visiting a European, whether the
head-gear were a cap, a turban or a scarf wrapped round
the head. A salute even with both hands was not
sufficient. Balasundaram thought that he should follow
the practice even with me. This was the first case in my
experience. I felt humiliated and asked him to tie up his
scarf. He did so, not without a certain hesitation, but I
could perceive the pleasure on his face.
It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel
themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow