Parsi Rustomji was one who became at once my client and co-worker, or perhaps it would be truer to say that he first became co-worker and then client. I won his confidence to such an extent that he sought and followed my advice also in private domestic matters. Even when he was ill, he would seek my aid, and though there was much difference between our ways of living, he did not hesitate to accept my quack treatment.
This friend once got into a very bad scrape. Though he kept me informed of most of his affairs, he had studiously kept back one thing. He was a large importer of goods from Bombay and Calcutta, and not infrequently he resorted to smuggling. But as he was on the best terms with custom officials, no one was inclined to suspect him. In charging duty, they use to take his invoices on trust. Some might even have connived at the smuggling.
But to use the telling simile of the Gujarati poet Akho, theft like quicksilver won’t be suppressed, and Parsi Rustomji’s proved no exception. The good friend ran post haste to me, the tears rolling down his cheeks as he said: ‘Bhai, I have deceived you. My guilt has been discovered today. I have smuggled and I am doomed. I must go to jail and be ruined. You alone may be able to save me from this predicament. I have kept back nothing else from you, but I thought I ought not to bother you with such tricks of the trade and so I never told you about this smuggling. But now, how much I repent it!’
I calmed him and said: ‘To save or not to save you is in His hands. As to me you know my way. I can but try to save you by means of confession.’
The good Parsi felt deeply mortified.
‘But is not my confession before you enough?’ he asked.
‘You have wronged not me but Government. How will the confession made before me avail you?’ I replied gently.
‘Of course I will do just as you advice, but will you not consult with my old counsel–? He is a friend too,’ said Parsi Rustomji.
Inquiry revealed that the smuggling had been going on for a long time, but the actual offence detected involved a trifling sum. We went to his counsel. He perused the papers, and said: ‘The case will be tried by a jury, and a Natal jury will be the last to acquit an Indian. But I will not give up hope.’
I did not know this counsel intimately. Parsi Rustomji intercepted: ‘I thank you, but I should like to be guided by Mr. Gandhi’s advice in this case. He knows me intimately. Of course you will advise him whenever necessary.’
Having thus shelved the counsel’s question, we went to Parsi Rustomji’s shop.
And now explaining my view I said to him: ‘I don’t think this case should be taken to court at all. It rests with Customs Officer to prosecute you or to let you go, and he turn will have to be guided by the Attorney-General. I am prepared to meet both. I propose that you should offer to pay the penalty they fix, and the odds are that they will be agreeable. But if they are not, you must be prepared to go in jail. I am of opinion that the shame lies not so much in going to jail as in committing the offence. The deed of shame has already been done. Imprisonment you should regard as a penance. The real penance lies in resolving never to smuggle again.’
I cannot say that Parsi Rustomji took all this quite well. He was a brave man, but his courage failed him for the moment. His name and fame were at stake, and where would he be if the edifice he had reared with such care and labour should go to pieces?
‘Well, I have told you,’ he said, ‘that I am entirely in your hands. You may do just as you like’.
I brought to bear on this case all my powers of persuasion. I met the Customs Officer and fearlessly apprised him of the whole affair. I also promised to place all the books at his disposal and told him how penitent Parsi Rustomji was feeling.
The Customs Officer said: ‘I like the old Parsi. I am sorry he has made a fool of himself. You know where my duty lies. I must be guided by the Attorney-General and so I would advice you to use all your persuasion with him.’
‘I shall be thankful,’ said I, ‘if you do not insist on dragging him into court.’
Having got him to promise this, I entered into correspondence with the Attorney – General and also met him. I am glad to say that he appreciated my complete frankness and was convinced that I kept back nothing.
I now forget whether it was in connection with this or with some other case that my persistence and frankness extorted from him the remark: ‘I see you will never take a no for an answer.’
The case against Parsi Rustomji was compromised. He was to pay a penalty equal to twice the amount he had confessed to having smuggled. Rustomji reduced to writing the facts of the whole case, got the paper framed and hung it up in his office to serve as a perpetual reminder to his heirs and fellow merchants.
These friends of Rustomji warned me not to be taken in by this transitory contrition. When I told Rustomji about this warning he said: ‘What would be my fate if I deceived you?’
An Autobiography, (1959), pp 270-72