Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.com
When did Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi transform from being just a regular guy to becoming the Mahatma (“Great Soul”), a transcendental figure of the 20th century? The accumulated experiences of any man’s life are often credited with forming his character, some mysterious combination of nature and nurture. However, I would pinpoint a particular moment in time: the day he was forcibly kicked off the first-class train compartment by police at the Pietermaritzburg train station in South Africa, where Gandhi was traveling for work. The date was June 7, 1893, and Gandhi was violently pushed out when he refused to disembark willingly because he wasn’t white, though he had a duly purchased first-class fare. This incident burned within Gandhi and helped turn him on to the community organizing and rabble-rousing that would initialize the path toward becoming the founding father of the modern Indian nation. Until then, he was a mediocre young lawyer at best and had led an unremarkable life by all accounts, including his own.
Much less discussed is the American connection at that fateful time, which Gandhi has recounted in his seminal autobiography, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi was in serious need of help after a restless night at the cold station once the train had left. He finally caught a different train to Pretoria the next day but was beaten en route by yet another railway guard who did not appreciate an Indian sitting in his compartment. There was nobody there to receive a fatigued Gandhi at the destination. Gandhi was concerned about how to find lodging in a strange new place in a foreign country, a highly prejudiced town that would not admit Indian guests at its inns. And then came a semblance of humanity from an unexpected source. To wit:
The station became clear of all passengers. I gave my ticket to the ticket collector and began my inquiries. He replied to me courteously, but I saw that he could not be of any considerable help. But an American Negro who was standing nearby broke into the conversation.
‘I see,’ said he, ‘that you are an utter stranger here, without any friends. If you will come with me, I will take you to a small hotel, of which the proprietor is an American who is very well known to me. I think he will accept you.’ I had my own doubts about the offer, but I thanked him and accepted his suggestion. He took me to Johnson’s Family Hotel. He drew Mr. Johnson aside to speak to him, and the latter agreed to accommodate me for the night, on condition that I should have my dinner served in my room. ‘I assure you,’ said he, ‘that I have no colour prejudice. But I have only European custom, and, if I allowed you to eat in the dining-room, my guests might be offended and even go away.’ ‘Thank you,’ said I, ‘even for accommodating me for the night. I am now more or less acquainted with the conditions here, and I understand your difficulty. I do not mind your serving the dinner in my room. I hope to be able to make some other arrangement tomorrow.’
I was shown into a room, where I now sat waiting for the dinner and musing, as I was quite alone. There were not many guests in the hotel, and I had expected the waiter to come very shortly with the dinner. Instead Mr. Johnston appeared. He said: ‘I was ashamed of having asked you to have your dinner here. So I spoke to the other guests about you, and asked them if they would mind your having your dinner in the dining-room. They said they had no objection, and that they did not mind your staying here as long as you liked. Please, therefore, come to the dining-room, if you will, and stay here as long as you wish.’
I thanked him again, went to the dining-room and had a hearty dinner.
The anecdote is an interesting one for several reasons. Here was a nameless African American, unquestionably more disenfranchised by his home society and his adopted one in South Africa than Indians were, offering Gandhi an unsolicited helping hand both at the station and on his behalf at the hotel. Gandhi was himself incredulous. It wasn’t a South African white or black, or even another Indian who came forward. Then there is the white Mr. Johnson who took Gandhi in despite the town’s backward customs and at the risk of losing business. This same Mr. Johnson even felt so bad about barring Gandhi from his dining room that he took the initiative to ask his other guests to allow an Indian to dine near them.
All of these small acts of kindness may seem insignificant to some, a coincidence of minor gestures at best. But I view them as incidents that just may have restored a little bit of Gandhi’s faith in conscience and humanity during a time of hardship that transformed him into a different person. That he recalled the story 16 years later and chose to immortalize it in his book means that he never forgot. It should make Americans incredibly proud of the decency displayed by two of our people in a foreign land in 1893 while others stood by. Add Gandhi’s intense study of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other American thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries and theory has matched practice. We can start to see the outline of a bridge between two societies forming.
Gandhi of course returned the favor in spades as one of the spiritual and intellectual guiding forces of the US civil rights movement several decades after his death.