The port of Natal is Durban also known as Port Natal. Abdulla Sheth was there to receive me. As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to meet their friends, I observed that the Indians were not held in much respect. I could not fail to notice a sort of snobbishness about the manner in which those who knew Abdulla Sheth behaved towards him, and it stung me. Abdulla Sheth had got used to it. Those who looked at me did so with a certain amount of curiosity. My dress marked me out from other Indian. I had a frock-coat and a turban, an imitation of the Bengal Pugree.
I was taken to the firm’s quarters and shown into the room set apart for me, next to Abdulla Sheth’s. He did not understand me. I could not understand him. He read the papers his brother had sent through me, and felt more puzzled. He thought his brother had sent him a white elephant. My style of dress and living struck him as being expensive like that of the Europeans. There was no particular work then which could be given me. Their case was going on in the Transvaal. There was no meaning in sending me there immediately. And how far could he trust my ability and honesty? He would not be in Pretoria to watch me.
The defendants were in Pretoria, and for aught he knew they might bring undue influence to bear on me. And if work in connection with the case in question was not to be entrusted to me, what work could I be given to do as all other work could be done much better by his clerks? The clerks could be brought to book, if they did wrong. Could I be, if I also happened to err? So if no work in coonection with the case could be given me, I should have to be kept for nothing.
Abdulla Sheth was practically unlettered, but he had a rich fund of experience. He had an acute intellect and was conscious of it. By practice he had picked up just sufficient English for conversational purpose, but that served him for carrying on all his business, whether it was dealing with Bank Managers and European merchants or explaining his case to his counsel. The Indians held him in very high esteem. His firm was then the biggest, or at any rate one of the biggest, of the Indian firms. With all these advantages he had one disadvantage – he was by nature suspicious.
He was proud of Islam and loved to discourse of Islamic philosophy. Though he did not know Arabic his acquaintance with the Holy Koran and Islamic literature in general was fairly good. Illustrations he had in plenty, always ready at hand. Contact with him gave me a fair amount of practical knowledge of Islam. When we came closer to each other, we had long discussions on religious topics.
On the second or third day of my arrival, he took me to see the Durban court. There be introduced me to several people and seated me next to his attorney. The Magistrate kept staring at me and finally asked me to take off my turban. This I refused to do and left the court.
So here too there was fighting in store for me.
Abdulla Sheth explained to me why some Indians were required to take off their turbans. Those wearing the Mussalman costume might, he said, keep their turbans on, but the other Indians on entering a court had to take theirs off as a rule.
I must enter into some details to make this nice distinction intelligible. In the course of these two or three days I could see that the Indians were divided into different groups. One was that of Mussalman merchants, who would call themselves ‘Arabs’. Another was that of Hindu, and yet another or Parsi, clerks. The Hindu clerks were neither here nor there, unless they cast in their lot with the ‘Arabs’. The Parsi clerks would call themselves Persians. These three classes had some social relations with one another. ‘But by far the largest class was that composed of Tamil, Telugu and North Indian indentured and freed labourers. The indentured labourers were those who went to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years, and came to be known there as girmitiyas from girmit, which was the corrupt form of the English word ‘agreement’. The other three classes had none but business relations with this class. Englishmen called them ‘coolies’, and as the majority of Indians belonged to the laboring class, all Indians were called ‘coolies’, or ‘samis’. ‘Sami’ is a Tamil suffix occurring after many Tamil names, and it is nothing else than the Sanskrit swami, meaning a master. Whenever, therefore, an Indian resented being addressed as a sami and had enough wit in him, he would try to return the compliment in this wise: ‘You may call me sami, but you forget that sami means a master. I am not your master!’ Some Englishmen would wince at this, while others would get angry, swear at the Indians and, if there was a chance, would even belabor him; for sami to him was nothing better than a term of contempt. To interpret it to mean a master amounted to an insult!
I was hence known as a ‘coolie barrister’. The merchants were known as ‘coolie merchants’. The original meaning of the word ‘coolie’ was thus forgotten, and it became a common appellation for all Indians. The Mussalman merchant would resent this and say: ‘I am not a coolie, I am an Arab,’ or ‘I am a merchant,’ and the Englishman, if courteous, would apologize to him.
The question of wearing the turban had a great importance in this state of things. Being obliged to take off one’s Indian turban would be pocketing an insult. So I thought I had better bid good-bye to the Indian turban and begin wearing an English hat, which would save me from the insult and the unpleasant controversy.
But Abdulla Sheth disapproved of the idea. He said, ‘If you do anything of the kind, it will have a very bad effect. You will compromise those insisting on wearing Indian turbans. And an Indian turban sits well on your head. If you wear an English hat, you will pass for a waiter.’
There was practical wisdom, patriotism and little bit of narrowness in this advice. The wisdom was apparent, and he would not have insisted on the Indian turban except out of patriotism; the slighting reference to the waiter betrayed a kind of narrowness. Amongst the indentured Indian there were three classes – Hindus, Mussalmans and Christians. The last were the children of indentured Indians who became converts to Christianity. Even in 1893 their number was large. They wore the English costume, and the majority of them earned their living by service as waiters in hotels. Abdulla Sheth’s criticism of the English hat was with reference to this class. It was considered degrading to serve as a waiter in a hotel. The belief persists even today among many.
On the whole I liked Abdulla Sheth’s advice. I wrote to the press about the incident and defended the wearing of my turban in the court. The question was very much discussed in the papers, which described me as an ‘unwelcome visitor’. Thus the incident gave me an unexpected advertisement in South Africa within a few days of my arrival there. Some supported me while others severely criticized my temerity.
My turban stayed with me practically until the end of my stay in South Africa.
An Autobiography, (1959),