In the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi

RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.

I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.

The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.

During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.

Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.

Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.

In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley.  What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.

I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.

Headquarters of Gandhi in Bombay

MAHATMA GANDHI TRAVELLED much during his life. I have visited several of the places in India, which were important landmarks in his life: Porbandar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, and Bombay. The latter saw much of Gandhi both before and after he had lived, worked, and campaigned in South Africa.

Mani Bhavan, a mansion in Laburnum Road in the Gamdevi district of Bombay, was owned by Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, a friend of Gandhi. It became Gandhi’s headquarters in Bombay between 1917 and 1934. Now, it is a popular museum dedicated to the history of Gandhi’s eventful life in South Africa, India, and elsewhere.

Most of the exhibits in the Mani Bhavan are photographs, many of which I have seen elsewhere. However, I had never before seen a photo of the Mahatma with his famous admirer Charlie Chaplin. There is also a photograph of the letter that Gandhi wrote to Adolf Hitler on the 27th July 1939, encouraging the German dictator to adopt peaceful methods rather than going to war. The British authorities did not allow this letter to reach Germany, let alone leave India.

There is a room on the second floor in which Gandhi used to spend much time spinning. It contains several of the spinning wheels that he used daily.

On the second floor, there is also a gallery with a series of dioramas, each one illustrating a different episode in the life of Gandhi. One of them shows the future Mahatma being thrown out of a first class railway compartment in Pietermaritzburg Station in Natal, South Africa. Another, shows him at a public burning in Bombay of cloth and clothes imported into India. This occurred in 1921. Gandhi was by no means the first to burn foreign cloth in India. Many years earlier, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindutva, supervised a bonfire of imported cloth in Nasik.

The well made dioramas reminded me of those I had seen at the Godra Ambe Dham temple complex near Kutch Mandvi. The ones at Ambe Dham are moralistic in content, chronicling the virtues of a healthy Hindu life and the awful consequences of straying from it.

The Mani Bhavan had plenty of foreign visitors, most of whom seemed very interested in what is on display.

Of all the Ghandhian sites I have visited in India so far, the Mani Bhavan has impressed me least. If pressed to say which have impressed and moved me most, I would choose Gandhi’s birthplace in Porbandar, his classroom in what used to be Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, and his first ashram in Ahmedabad, the Kochrab Ashram. Had I not already visited these three places nor seen the superb collection of Ghandian photos in the Gandhi Smrti in Bhavnagar, I think that a visit to the Mani Bhavan would have been more interesting for me than it was. I am pleasrd that I have visited the place because I enjoy following in the footsteps of the life of one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of India, nay the whole world.

However great or small your interest in Gandhi might be, visiting Mani Bhavan brings you to a part of Bombay rich in elegant mansions built by prosperous citizens over 100 years ago.

Biography of an idealist

gandhi blog

I have just finished reading a 660 page biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Its author, Rajmohan Gandhi, is one of his grandsons, a noted historian.

Gandhi was an idealist with a highly original mind. After a childhood in Gujarat (part of western India), he studied in London and became a barrister. After a brief return to India, Gandhi set off for South Africa to dwork as a barrister. He remained in South Africa for many years, managing his legal practice and fighting for the rights of Indians living in the country – actually, countries as South Africa was only unified in 1910. His struggles for the rights of the Indians was the proving ground for methods of non-violent revolution which he brought to India when he returned there for good in 1915.

It is no exaggeration to claim that Gandhi’s activities and his saintly persona, more than anything else, prepared the Indian masses for a desire to become liberated from the yoke of British imperial rule. Rajmohan Gandhi describes and explains this lucidly. So great was the respect for Gandhi all over India, that he was able to resolve numerous problems with the government or between different communities simply by fasting. He was willing to starve himself to death, but neither the British authorities nor most Indians were prepared to lose him. So, they gave in to his not unreasonable demands. His mass non-violent protests that were joined by thousands of ordinary people, who were prepared to be imprisoned or to be beaten by the police without offering resistance, often achieved their aims.

By the mid-1940s, the situation in India was such that the British began planning to leave it. During the lead up to Independence in August 1947 and after the Partition of India and the formation of the new state of Pakistan, India was plagued by excessively violent inter-communal conflicts: Hindus vs Muslims and Sikhs vs Muslims. Despite numerous fasts, Gandhi was unable to keep the peoples of India unified.

Gandhi’s ideals included seeing India achieve its independence. He was also keen to maintain harmony between members of India’s different religions. He did witness India’s freedom from the British, but had to suffer in the knowledge that despite his efforts, Independence was achieved whilst inter-communal violence kept increasing.

There were many in India who did not share Gandhi’s desire for inter-religious harmony. Amongst these were the so-called ‘Hindu nationalists’. It was a group of them who assasinated the Mahatma in 1948 at one of his prayer meetings in New Delhi.

Rajmohan Gandhi’s account of his famous grandfather is thorough. It gives a good idea of the Mahatma’s personality and his brilliance with dealing with everyone from the humblest harijan (‘untouchable’ or ‘dalit’) to the most pompous of politicians both Indian and British.

In brief, this book is first class and I can strongly reccommend it.

 

Postscript:

The book described above deals with the Mahatma’s rather eccentric, to put it mildly, relationship with women. However, it avoids mentioning his prejudices aagainst black Africans during the first few years of his sojourn in South Africa. No one is perfect! As he grew older, he could no longer be accused of holding racist views.

Mahatma Gandhi ate in Notting Hill

Today, 36 Ledbury Road (illustrated) in London’s trendy Notting Hill district (made famous by the 1999 film Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) gives nothing away about its colourful past. It was once the home of the Indian Catering Company, a restaurant run by Nizam-ud-Din, who also owned the Eastern Café near Chancery Lane.

The Indian Catering Company, which was serving customers during the reign of Edward VII (1901-10) was not the first Indian restaurant to have been opened in London. The first curry house in London was opened by Sake Dean Mahomet (born in India in the 18th century). An employee of the East India Company, which he joined in 1769, he arrived in London in 1807. Two years later, he opened his Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street near Portman Square. Although it was called a ‘coffee house’, it was actually a restaurant serving curries and other examples of Indian cuisine. The restaurant thrived until 1833, when it was closed. There is much more information about this establishment in Star of India, a book by Jo Monroe.

By the time that the restaurant at 36 Ledbury Road was serving customers, the Indian Catering Company was one of many Indian restaurants in early twentieth century London. The reason for my interest in this former eatery is that it was a meeting place for extremist Indian independence fighters in Edwardian London. I discovered this while researching my recently published book IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS.

Although he cannot be considered an ‘extremist’, the famous Mahatma Gandhi partook of a meal at the Indian Catering Company in Ledbury Road in October 1909. Here is an excerpt from my book:

In October, the festival of Dussehra was celebrated at Nizam-ud-Din’s restaurant, The Indian Catering Company, at 36 Ledbury Road in Bayswater. Gandhi had been invited to chair the proceedings. He had accepted the invitation on condition that the food would be pure vegetarian and that discussion of controversial politics was avoided. The food was served by Savarkar’s followers: VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and TSS Rajan, all sometime members of India House.”

Whereas Gandhi both preached and practised non-violence, the same cannot be said of VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar ( a ‘father’ of Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva), who also attended the meal.

Although there is no plaque recording the interesting history of 36 Ledbury Road so near to Portobello Road, whenever I pass this house I feel a tingle when I remember the famous Indian freedom fighters who once entered it and ate there.

A SMALL house cover

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” is by Adam YAMEY

ISBN: 9780244203870

The book is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, and lulu.com

It may also be ordered from bookshops

There is an e-book edition on Kindle

 

Gandhi to Hitler

GTO H 2

On the 24th of December 1940 Mohandas Gandhi (the ‘Mahatma’) wrote to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Amongst other things that he wrote in his letter, the following extracts suffice to give the gist of it:

I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.

But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation…

…During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.” (see: https://www.mkgandhi.org/letters/hitler_ltr1.htm).

I do not think that this unbelievable letter ever reached the Führer. However, it formed the basis for a film, which was on general release in India briefly.

G TO H

[Source: MensXP.com]

In 2011, an Indian film, “Gandhi to Hitler”, was put out on general release in India. One newspaper accorded it a rating of half a star out of five. We were staying in Bangalore when it was showing, and I was dying to see a film whose name juxtaposed the peace-loving Gandhi with the war-mongering Adolf Hitler.

Only one cinema was showing the film in Bangalore. It was a long way from where we were staying. We arrived for the 10 am performance and joined a long queue of school-aged children waiting at the box office of the cinema multiplex. When we reached the ticket office, I said to the ticket seller:

“Two for the Gandhi/Hitler film.”

“Not possible, sir,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“I must sell three tickets before we can screen a film, and you are only two.”

“But,” I protested, “we have come all the way from London to see this film.”

I thought for a moment, and then said:

“Sell me three tickets, and then you can screen the film.”

The seller was happy with this. We walked over to the lift that would take us up to the cinema. While we were waiting, the ticket man came rushing up to us, waving one of the notes with which we had paid for our tickets. He had managed to find a third taker for the film and refunded our third ticket.

Apart from an usher, there were only three of us in the large auditorium. The film was so dreadful that it was quite amusing. The plot had three main strands that ran in parallel. The first was Gandhi and his followers walking endlessly around a lovely garden. One of the followers was the wife of a man, who appears in the second strand. This aspect of the plot revolved around a group of Indian soldiers who had joined the German Army but were trying to desert from it. For those who are unaware of it, some Indian soldiers did actually join the Wehrmacht during WW2, hoping that a German defeat of the British might hasten the independence of India. Throughout the film, this forlorn band of soldiers trudged through a snowy mountainous landscape that was supposed to be the Alps but looked more like the Himalayas. Somehow, quite inexplicably, the woman in India was able to correspond by letters with the soldier tramping through the ‘Alps’.

The third strand of the film, which had no obvious connection with the other two strands, was set in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich. Anyone who has watched the excellent film “Downfall” (2004) would be able to see that the bunker in the Indian film is a very crude copy of that in the German film. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the man portraying him in the Indian film is a true Aryan, an Indian. Goebbels is played by a character who looks like an elegant Italian. The Indian Hitler kept forgetting which of his arms was supposed to be lame.

There was an interval half way through the film. We left the auditorium to stretch our legs. When we returned for the second half of the film, my wife and I were the only people left in the auditorium.