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Gandhi as Imperial Subject
To this point, I have been viewing the history of the British Empire from a historian’s perspective, surveying it from above and mapping its basic contours. This vantage point provides us with useful information, but it misses an essential level if we are to try and understand the world before and around the year 1914. The level this high historical analysis misses is that of the daily lives of people. What was life like in India and South Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? How did Africans and Indians relate to European colonizers and imperial administrators? How did British and European influence change the lives of indigenous peoples? How did these peoples feel about their British rulers? How did the British rulers and the British public feel about the people they ruled? All of these questions can be better answered by turning our focus to the personal level – to the life of one character in this global story – Mohandas Gandhi.
Gandhi was born in the coastal Gujarati city of Porbandar in 1869. His father was a local Indian administrator in Porbandar, his mother a devout Vaishnavite Hindu. His early youth was spent attending school, where his middling performance inspired no confidence that he would have a great future ahead of him. At age fourteen, Gandhi was married in an arranged marriage with a girl one year younger, following the traditional practice of arranged child-marriages for familial and economic reasons. Gandhi reluctantly entered into this marriage and found himself to be an uncontrollably jealous and lustful husband. His wife, Kasturbai, was illiterate and Gandhi began teaching her, albeit rather unsuccessfully, to read and write. In keeping with Indian traditions, Kasturbai spent a large part of the year living at her father’s house.
As a teenager, Gandhi related to the British occupation only in so far as it touched on his own existence. One of the principles of his Vaishnavite faith, for example, was a strong belief in the spiritual necessity of vegetarianism, a belief he had internalized from his mother’s unbending dietary purity. As we can imagine, the idea of vegetarianism had no place in British society, a land of enthusiastic meat-eaters. Thus, young Gandhi encountered his first intercultural dilemma. One of Gandhi’s friends decided that he would begin to eat meat. Gandhi at first resisted the pressures of his worldlier friend, who argued relentlessly that the superiority of the British was in large measure based on their more robust diet of meat. Look at the relative height of the British versus the Indian, the friend would point out. Only meat eating, he continued, would enable the Indian to overcome this subjugation. This is a small but important example of a cultural dilemma created by imperialism. Here is how Gandhi presents it in his autobiography:I [...] became a relisher of meat-dishes, if not of meat itself. This went on for about a year. But not more than half a dozen meat-feasts were enjoyed in all; because the State house was not available every day, and there was the obvious difficulty about frequently preparing expensive savoury meat-dishes. I had no money to pay for this 'reform'. My friend had therefore always to find the wherewithal. I had no knowledge where he found it. But find it he did, because he was bent on turning me into a meat-eater. But even his means must have been limited, and hence these feasts had necessarily to be few and far between.Whenever I had occasion to indulge in these surreptitious feasts, dinner at home was out of the question. My mother would naturally ask me to come and take my food and want to know the reason why I did not wish to eat. I would say to her, 'I have no appetite today; there is something wrong with my digestion.' It was not without compunction that I devised these pretexts. I knew I was lying, and lying to my mother. I also knew that, if my mother and father came to know of my having become a meat-eater, they would be deeply shocked. This knowledge was gnawing at my heart.This is a typical example of cultural interaction in the colonial world. Gandhi feels compelled to eat meat not only because of the pressure exerted by his friend, but also because he perceives that the British way of going about things is superior to the traditional Indian ways. He decides to eat meat, breaking one of the strongest prohibitions of his faith. This simple dietary decision could, in theory, result in sharp divisions within his family. If we are to assume that this dilemma (and similar dilemmas) was common throughout India during the late 19th century, then we begin to see just how destabilizing foreign rule can be to traditional cultures. Gandhi’s internal turmoil must have taken place in millions of others throughout the colonial world during these years. In the end, Gandhi renounced meat eating, admitted his violations to his parents, and asked for their forgiveness.
Though Gandhi forswore eating meat, his admiration for things British continued. When the chance presented itself to go to London to study to become a lawyer, Gandhi quickly jumped at it. With the permission of his older brother and mother (his father had passed away) Gandhi left his home to catch a ship from Bombay to London. While in Bombay, Gandhi ran into another problem caused by the sticky conflict between traditional culture and colonial society. Indian society was composed of kinship groups called castes. While these castes could be broken down into general groupings that apply to the entire Hindu population (the priestly Brahmins, the warrior kshatriya, the artisan castes, and the lowly Untouchables) castes were also defined by kinship relations. These caste structures were key elements, perhaps the key element, in defining a person’s social station. The caste structure dictated whom a person could marry and how one could earn a living. Approval of the caste was necessary for most of life’s biggest decisions. Disapproval could mean excommunication and potential ruin. British rule, however, changed this dynamic. There was now a powerful force beyond the castes that could dictate social success or failure.
Gandhi ran up against caste power while in Bombay waiting for his passage to London. Powerful members of his caste disapproved of his journey to London. Confrontation followed. Gandhi writes:Meanwhile my caste-people were agitated over my going abroad. No Modh Bania [the name of Gandhi’s caste] had been to England up to now, and if I dared to do so, I ought to be brought to book! A general meeting of the caste was called and I was summoned to appear before it. I went. How I suddenly managed to muster up courage I do not know. Nothing daunted, and without the slightest hesitation, I came before the meeting. The Sheth - the headman of the community who was distantly related to me and had been on very good terms with my father, thus accosted me: ‘In the opinion of the caste, your proposal to go to England is not proper. Our religion forbids voyages abroad. We have also heard that it is not possible to live there without compromising our religion. One is obliged to eat and drink with Europeans!’ To which I replied: ‘I do not think it is at all against our religion to go to England. I intend going there for further studies. And I have already solemnly promised to my mother to abstain from three things you fear most. I am sure the vow will keep me safe.’ ‘But we tell you,’ rejoined the Sheth, ‘that it is not possible to keep our religion there. You know my relations with your father and you ought to listen to my advice.’ ‘I know those relations,’ said I. ‘And you are as an elder to me. But I am helpless in this matter. I cannot alter my resolve to go to England. My father's friend and adviser, who is a learned Brahman, sees no objection to my gong to England, and my mother and brother have also given me their permission.’ ‘But will you disregard the orders of the caste?’ ‘I am really helpless. I think the caste should not interfere in the matter.’ This incensed the Sheth. He swore at me. I sat unmoved. So the Sheth pronounced his order: ‘This boy shall be treated as an outcaste from today. Whoever helps him or goes to see him off at the dock shall be punishable with a fine...’In such a way, as an outcast from his caste, Gandhi left Bombay for London. Despite the shock to his caste, Gandhi’s arrival in London was not unprecedented; Indian students had first started traveling to study in England already in the 1840s. By Gandhi’s time, around 300 Indian students could be counted in British educational institutions, and of the 300 about half of those were studying law. This doesn’t mean, of course, that only 300 Indians lived in England during these years – the total Indian population in London was much higher. London was, in 1900, Europe’s largest city and contained people from all over the colonial empire.
Nonetheless, London in 1900 was not London in the year 2000 or even New York City in the years before the First World War. While immigrant communities defined New York City, London was still essentially British. The types of immigrant support networks that could be seen in New York (foreign language newspapers, restaurants and stores catering to an immigrant clientele, and a new immigrant professional class) were absent in London. Though Gandhi was an enthusiastic anglophile and not yet a committed proponent of anti-colonial resistance, he still found it difficult to establish himself in the imperial capital. British social etiquette daunted him. British styles of dress felt odd to him, as if he were stripping off his natural identity and assuming one at odds with his basic nature. He would never fully feel comfortable in the British costume of suit, collar, and necktie. Food was another difficult issue for Gandhi. Mainstream British society had little tolerance for vegetarianism and Gandhi struggled to balance the rigid rules of British etiquette with his steadfast refusal to eat meat. This quest led him to join a British vegetarians’ society, through which he made friends and was introduced to some of the latest British literature on the subject of diet.
Here, we start to see an important mixing of cultural influences on Gandhi. He took with him from India his strong beliefs in vegetarianism, but it was only in England that he became fully converted to what he considered to be the morally correct position of vegetarianism. Importantly or interestingly, this conversion came not through a deeper embrace of Hinduism but from a confrontation with British ideas on the subject. Details as mundane as clothing and diet give us a great view into the everyday life and everyday problems associated with being a colonial subject in the British imperial world. Never before in human history had people mixed so much. Never before had so many traditional cultures been confronted with one dominant set of cultural practices and expectations, which we can call, broadly speaking, European. Gandhi’s daily life in London allows us to imagine the internal and external discomfort of the colonial subject as he or she assimilated to this new reality of living at the center of the colonial world. More distressing hardships existed in the colonies themselves.