July 1942. Sevagram Ashram, central India
daily express reporter: Mr Gandhi, you have been in London yourself. Have you no comment to make on the heavy bombings which the British people have sustained?
mahatma gandhi: Oh yes. I know every nook and corner of London where I lived for three years, so many years ago, and somewhat of Oxford and of Cambridge and Manchester too; but it is London I specially feel for. I used to read in the Inner Temple Library, and would often attend Dr Parker’s sermons in the Temple Church. My heart goes out to the people, and when I heard that the Temple Church was bombed, I bled.
On 29 September 1888, an Indian teenager with a mild case of ringworm and a fine head of hair sailed into the Thames Estuary. He was wearing a white flannel suit that would soon become a cause of enduring shame. As the estuary narrowed after Canvey Island, the SS Clyde was forced sharply south, before heading west again, towards London – and the flat muddy shorelines of Kent, on the left, and Essex, on the right, were now visible. The busy Kentish town of Gravesend, with its cast-iron river piers and its Pocahontas church (the ‘Indian’ princess was buried there), soon hove into view. But the Clyde and the teenager were bound for more modest Tilbury on the Essex shore – and for the new port that had just been built to relieve pressure on London’s more proximate docklands.
In the late 1880s, Tilbury became London’s most important passenger terminal. The Windrush and its Jamaican migrants would dock here in 1948, and it was where many other migrants, such as the ‘Ten Pound Poms’, would leave Britain for Australia. Today, apart from the occasional cruise ship, passengers are unseen at Tilbury. And the only easy way to approach Tilbury by boat these days is the oldest: the foot ferry from Gravesend that has existed since at least the seventeenth century.
‘Single or return?’ asked the flat-voiced man sitting at a small desk in the ferry’s only cabin.
‘Single is three pounds fifty. Return is three pounds.’
‘Single.’ I wasn’t really listening.
‘Are you sure?’
And then I realized.
‘OK. Return, then. That’s a bit odd.’
He gave me an old-fashioned look.
‘I don’t make the rules, do I?’
I grinned and looked around. Another passenger tittered. I sat down beside her and her shopping bags. She asked me where I was going.
‘Tilbury.’ I giggled. We were all going to Tilbury.
‘Yes, Tilbury.’ I continued. ‘A long time ago Mahatma Gandhi went to Tilbury by boat.’
‘No. From India.’
She was silent, and thoughtful.
‘He’d have been a bit chilly. In that loincloth thing.’
‘Actually, he was wearing a white flannel suit.’
‘Oh. Then it wouldn’t have been so bad.’
I went on deck and was able to make out the three-domed Sikh gurdwara (completed in 2010), punching its way clear of the old Gravesend skyline. On the Tilbury side, the ferry slid past a coastal fort (completed in the 1680s), with a curved masonry gateway rearing out of the marshes. I wondered if Gandhi noticed the gateway, so similar to those in early colonial settlements in Gujarat or Bombay, or was he already preoccupied with his blessed suit, or with finding the railway station that would take him to London? And then we gently struck the landing jetty, and I was brought back to earth.
Ahead of me was the old railway station, abandoned in 1992, the main building still standing – the platforms now an unused car park, its pristine emptiness protected by harpoon-like palisades and coils of razor wire. I would have to walk to the main station in Tilbury town. The old railway siding, further inland, was now stacked high with shipping containers and, closer to the estuary, I could see the modern port, with huge blue cranes, a great mountain of shiny twisted scrap metal – and three spinning wind turbines.
I pushed on into Tilbury, along Calcutta Road, and peered inside an ‘Indian’ restaurant near the station, Le Raj. The waiter, from Bangladesh, couldn’t tell me why it had that name, but said the ‘le’ should be pronounced ‘lay’. I bit my tongue and smiled.
‘Not many Asians around here,’ he said. ‘Mainly blacks and whites.’
He showed no interest in the fact that Gandhi had passed through Tilbury. I was beginning to lose interest myself. So I told him the story. How Gandhi wore a white flannel suit on the advice of his Bombay friends, and was mortified on arrival in England to find that no one else was dressed in a similar manner. He talked of ‘the shame of being the only person in white clothes’, and then, even worse, how he couldn’t get his luggage delivered because it was the weekend,
and so he had to remain in his embarrassing flannel suit for two more days.
‘What is flannel?’ the waiter asked, as he washed some beer glasses.
‘Like cricket clothes, a bit.’
‘Oh. Did he play cricket?’
‘No, he didn’t. Can I order some food?’
‘No, it’s a Tuesday. We’re closed.’
I left, walked across Dock Road and, like Gandhi, an eighth of a millennium earlier, took the train to London.
Mohandas Gandhi, the youngest son of the former prime minister of a small princely state, had come to England to study law, in the belief that a London legal qualification would improve his career prospects in India. And he was wildly excited, despite several embarrassing incidents, including the white flannel suit episode, to be in the largest city in the world, the city he would describe as ‘dear London’ and ‘the centre of civilization’. He had taken a considerable risk in coming to London, defying his caste elders and borrowing money to finance his stay. He was leaving behind his wife (Gandhi and Kasturba were married as thirteen-year-olds) and their baby son. His father had died two years earlier, and he would never see his mother, Putlibai, again. She had made him swear, before he left India, that he would not touch meat, alcohol or women. And so far, despite temptations on all three fronts during the journey from Bombay to Tilbury, he had kept that vow. There would be further such temptations.
Gandhi’s London years have often been skated over, or deliberately ignored. They are entirely missing from the celluloid, Richard Attenborough version of his life, a film that sadly seems to provide the modern world with its canonical depiction of the Mahatma. Some of his hagiographers seem a little uncomfortable with Gandhi’s antics in London, that he showed so little interest in Indian nationalism, or in politics in general – and that he took dancing and violin lessons, that he professed a desire to be ‘an English gentleman’, that he flirted with young women. But not Gandhi himself, who was always keen to reveal to the world his mistakes and his peccadilloes. And most important it was in London, of all places, that two key strands of Gandhi’s ideas developed, ones that would later be more closely associated with the land of his birth: he became a proselytizing vegetarian, and first showed interest in Hindu religious philosophy. The catalysts in both cases were English friends whom he had met in London.
Gandhi wrote at length of his time in the city in his autobiography, in what were his first forays into journalism (for the Vegetarian) and in a guide that he wrote, but never published, for Indian visitors to London. There is also a diary fragment, and sparse recollections from people who knew Gandhi at this time. He was studying to be a barrister at the Inner Temple for most of his London sojourn, but it was also a period of intense experimentation and change for a young man who would later subtitle his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and who continued with those experiments throughout his life. And his tales of London, taken together, remain an entertaining and illuminating read, revealing of both the man and the city.
Gandhi is not always a reliable witness. When he came to write his autobiography in 1925, he had forgotten all about Tilbury, and seemed to believe that he had disembarked at Southampton. But he had forgotten none of his embarrassments – and remembered the white flannels, in particular. V.S. Naipaul, who seems to have read only the autobiography and not the other sources, compounds the Tilbury error, and embarrasses himself, by lambasting Gandhi in India: A Wounded Civilization for writing nothing about his impressions of Southampton. Typical Gandhi ‘self-absorption’, he declares, pressing on to point out with military imprecision that ‘Southampton is lost in that embarrassment (and rage) about the white flannels’. From this exposed salient, Naipaul mounts a full-scale attack on Indians, in general, for whom ‘the outer world matters only in so far as it affects the inner’. Naipaul is right to suggest that Gandhi was self-absorbed, but so, perhaps, are all the best autobiographers, and we might just as easily use the word self-aware, and come away thinking better of the man, and less well of his critics.
Our impressionable teenager, then, dressed in white flannels, and in the company of two other passengers from India, travelled by train from Tilbury to Fenchurch Street station. They took a horse-drawn cab to the Victoria Hotel, now an undistinguished hall of residence for LSE students on Northumberland Avenue near Trafalgar Square. ‘I was quite dazzled by the splendour of the hotel,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I had never in my life seen such pomp . . . There were electric lights all over.’ He was taken into what he believed to be a waiting room, but which was in fact a lift. He describes how the doorman pressed a button, and it was a matter of ‘great surprise’ when he arrived at the second floor. And his room? ‘When I first saw my room in the Victoria Hotel, I thought I could pass a lifetime in that room.’
A family friend from India, practising as a doctor in London, came over that evening and, Gandhi recorded many years later, smiled to see him in flannels. Gandhi picked up the doctor’s top hat and stroked it against the grain, as it were, and ‘disturbed the fur’. The doctor responded ‘somewhat angrily’. This, Gandhi later wrote, was his ‘first lesson in European etiquette’. The doctor explained that in England he should not, as he might in India, touch people’s possessions, or talk loudly, or ask questions of a new acquaintance. The doctor then prescribed him acetic acid for ringworm (Gandhi would remember the burning pain of the acid almost forty years later) and suggested he move out of the hotel immediately, and into an English home.
Gandhi’s early months were largely dedicated to his attempts at, in the words of his own chapter title, ‘Playing the English Gentleman’. He began to dress snappily, discarding his ready-knotted ties and his Bombay suits with their old-fashioned cut. Gandhi spent nineteen shillings on a ‘chimney pot hat’ and bought an evening suit ‘made in Bond Street, the centre of fashionable life in London’ for ten pounds. An Indian contemporary who encountered Gandhi near Piccadilly Circus described him later in some detail, in a way that suggested he had put the white flannels incident well behind him:
He was wearing a high silk top hat burnished bright, a Gladstonian collar, stiff and starched; a rather flashy tie displaying almost all the colours of the rainbow under which there was a fine striped silk shirt. He wore as his outer clothes a morning coat, a double-breasted vest, and dark striped trousers to match and not only patent leather boots but spats over them. He carried leather gloves and a silver-mounted stick, but wore no spectacles. He was, to use the contemporary slang, a nut, a masher, a blood – a student more interested in fashion and frivolities than in his studies.
Gandhi the ‘masher’ decided, as part of his attempts to become an English gentleman, to take lessons in dancing, elocution and French. He persisted with French, and added Latin – the latter to help him with the law. But he soon dropped elocution, and the dancing was a disaster – he took six lessons in three weeks and gave up, because he was unable ‘to achieve anything like rhythmic motion’. (How could the director of Gandhi have omitted this wonderfully Chaplinesque scene from the film?) Gandhi bought a violin for three pounds, and acquired a female violin teacher. The violin was soon sold off, with a bit of assistance from the teacher, who didn’t encourage him to keep playing. Gandhi would later recall how his ‘infatuation’ with becoming a gentleman lasted only three months, but that his ‘punctiliousness in dress continued for years’. He continued to wear well-tailored Western clothes until 1913.
By 1890, Gandhi’s profligate days in London were over, and he took to counting his pennies, balancing his accounts every evening before bed. This was partly born of necessity, since his family in India could not support him in the style to which he had become accustomed – but it soon became a discipline, almost a way of life. He became obsessed with saving money, one of several emerging obsessions. He moved to cheaper and cheaper accommodation – though he would refer, admiringly, to those who could make do with even less than him by living in London slums – which is practically his only reference to the poor of London. Gandhi lodged in several parts of west London that he termed ‘respectable’, including Barons Court, Bayswater and Westbourne Park, and had short stays in Bloomsbury, Covent Garden and Richmond.
His guide to Indian students coming to London goes into meticulous detail on the subject of saving money. Gandhi boasts that he eventually learned to get by on just one pound a week – seven shillings for rent, nine shillings for food and four shillings for everything else. He began to walk everywhere, often ten miles a day, so as not to waste money on public transport (and to improve his health). He learned how to shave himself, pointing out to his spoiled fellow countrymen that ‘even kings are not ashamed of doing so in Europe’, and Gandhi thereby saved himself another two pence a day. He described how he used chalk for cleaning his teeth, which saved him a halfpenny each week. And three tumblers of hot water and a sponge were quite enough to clean his whole body, with the help of ‘one cake of Pears soap [which] would last a month’ and cost three and a half pennies. Sometimes he used his bare hands instead of a sponge. His parsimonious ablutions were backed up by a fortnightly or monthly visit to the public baths. He also records how he saved money on laundry by getting his underwear washed less frequently, or by not wearing any in the summer. Sometimes Gandhi provides his readers with too much information.
In the course of his London years, Gandhi became an evangelical vegetarian, and met fellow vegetarians who would have a profound influence on him. Previously in India, he had, for a while, regularly eaten goat meat, in the belief that it would help him become ‘strong and daring’. And there’s even a carnivorous twist to the struggle for independence as he records how he believed, in his mid-teens, that eating meat would make Indians better able to ‘defeat the English and make India free’. In support of this position, Gandhi quotes the Gujarati poet Narmad:
Behold the mighty Englishman
He rules the Indian small
Because being a meat-eater
He is five cubits tall
But Gandhi was never a convinced carnivore. He described a recurring nightmare: of a live goat that was bleating inside his body. Eventually, he gave up meat, not so much because of his inner goat but because he could no longer bear lying to his parents. When the SS Clyde reached the Red Sea, an English passenger said that he would die in the cold climate of England if he did not eat meat, and predicted that by the time Gandhi reached the Bay of Biscay he would have changed his mind. As he neared Tilbury, Gandhi proudly procured a written certificate from his fellow passenger affirming that he had not eaten any meat.
In those early days in London, as he battled his first British winter, Gandhi’s new friends counselled him to break his oath. London was not then an easy place for vegetarians, and there were no Indian restaurants. Gandhi lived almost entirely on porridge, bread and jam in those first few months, and he found boiled vegetables à l’anglaise insufferably bland. One of his despairing landladies told him that she had heard of a vegetarian restaurant in the City, and he wandered around trying to find it. Eventually, near Ludgate Circus, he chanced upon the Congregational Memorial Hall (built on the site of the old Fleet Prison) and inside was an eating house known as the Central Vegetarian Restaurant. As he was entering, he spotted a pamphlet called ‘A Plea for Vegetarianism’, written by Henry Salt, an old Etonian born in India. On that day, as well as having ‘the first hearty meal since I arrived in England’ (which he unfortunately fails to describe), Gandhi became, under Salt’s influence, a vegetarian by choice and conviction, not because of a filial vow. The spread of vegetarianism became, he said, his ‘mission’.
Gandhi bought himself an oil stove so he could cook simple Indian food – such as dal, rice, vegetables and chapattis – and found more vegetarian restaurants, including one called the Porridge Bowl on High Holborn. His guide for Indian students in London is full of culinary advice about rather un-Indian (but still vegetarian) foodstuffs that can be found in the city, including Gorgonzola, Brussels sprouts, macaroni, tapioca pudding, blancmange and a wheat powder known as Florador that is best mixed with milk.
Gandhi’s favourite restaurants (and Florador) are long gone. The Congregational Memorial Hall, the enormous Victorian Gothic building where Gandhi’s vegetarian epiphany took place, became associated with the labour movement; it was both the site of the creation of the Labour Party in 1900 and the headquarters for the General Strike of 1926. This was not enough to stop it being demolished in 1969 and replaced by an office block. The site of the Porridge Bowl is now a Spanish tapas bar. Gandhi has not been entirely forgotten in this part of London. On Gray’s Inn Road there’s a restaurant, recently refurbished, that bears his name, possessively, as Gandhi’s. But there are no images of the man, or any obvious connection; and meat and alcohol are served. The head waiter, a man of Bangladeshi origin, was unapologetic about the non-vegetarian menu, the bottles of alcohol on display and the name of the restaurant. ‘He was a great man, that’s why the owner chose the name. But you see, most of our customers are non-veg; they want a beer or a glass of wine with Indian food, and chicken or prawns. Chicken tikka is the most popular. And there are lots of vegetarian items on the menu: we do onion bhajis, aloo chaat, vegetable kebabs, stuffed parathas.’ London has certainly become an easier place for vegetarians.
Gandhi soon became a member of the London Vegetarian Society, and by attending its meetings he found a new social milieu. It was largely white, male, middle class, non-conformist and fiercely argumentative. His new best friend was a young lawyer called Josiah Oldfield, who edited the Vegetarian newsletter. Both Oldfield and Dr Thomas Allinson (whose name has been immortalized in a variety of brown bread still available in Britain) would later claim to have converted Gandhi to vegetarianism. Gandhi’s quarrelsome new acquaintances expected him to take a stand, and he was dragged into their political infighting. At one point, almost by accident, Gandhi found himself ‘in the losing party’. There had been an attempt to throw Dr Allinson off the executive committee because of his support for modern methods of birth control. Gandhi voted in favour of Allinson, in spite of his own opposition to contraception, because he felt the issue had nothing to with the purpose of the society. Allinson, and Gandhi, lost the vote. And it was while Gandhi was on Vegetarian Society business that he came closest to breaking his vow not to have sex. He had travelled to a conference of vegetarians in Portsmouth, where the Society lodged him in a hostel full of women who, he says, ‘were not very scrupulous about their morals’. There he played cards with a woman who ‘moved me to lust’. But Gandhi ran away at the decisive moment, and shut himself up in his room, declaring later that he ‘passed the night sleeplessly, all kind of thoughts assailing me’. The following day he fled the conference and Portsmouth.
For a while, Gandhi shared a Bayswater flat with Josiah Oldfield – the first of several European men with whom he would develop a very close relationship. They held parties at the flat, serving rice and lentils to their guests. And they appeared as a double act at public meetings trying to convince Londoners to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Together they set up the Bayswater branch of the London Vegetarian Society, with Gandhi as secretary and Oldfield as president. As vice president they co-opted Sir Edwin Arnold, one of the best-known writers of the day and the author of a freewheeling translation of the Hindu philosophical and religious text, the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi would later describe the Gita as his ‘spiritual dictionary’, but he admitted, slightly embarrassed, that he had first encountered the Gita not in India, nor in an Indian language, but in London, and in Arnold’s translation. He also read Arnold’s The Light of Asia, an epic poem about the life of Buddha, and was captivated by Christ’s Sermon on the Mount ‘which went straight to my heart’. He attempted to create a syncretic philosophy of his own: ‘My young mind tried to unify the teachings of the Gita, The Light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount.’ Gandhi had begun to find his calling, his later spiritual direction, from these stories of renunciation, of turning the other cheek, but he gives no sense of there being a political dimension to his new philosophy. That would come later, in South Africa and India.
Gandhi also fell easily into the company of a number of slightly eccentric, religious freethinkers and psychomancers. He met the theosophists Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky in London, and Blavatsky’s often opaque writing ‘cured’ Gandhi of ‘the notion fostered by missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition’. Gandhi used to visit the City Temple, a newly constructed neoclassical church on Holborn (and not the Temple Church that he confused it with more than fifty years later in the Daily Express interview) to hear the celebrated Congregationalist minister Joseph Parker, famous for his vigorously theatrical sermons. And these were interests that would continue after Gandhi left London. A few years later, in South Africa in the mid 1890s, Gandhi would become the local agent of the Esoteric Christian Union, an occult group of English mystics who had broken away from theosophy, and whose theology was based on revelations that came to its co-founder, Anna Kingsford, while she was dreaming or in a trance.
Gandhi the ‘masher’ of 1889 had, by 1891, as he neared the end of his time in London, become Gandhi the ‘faddist’, a word he used to describe how others saw him and his group of friends. As well as vegetarianism and religious philosophy, Gandhi had begun to take a great interest in self-medication, in experimenting with his body by denying himself particular foods, by bathing in a certain manner. ‘Constipation,’ he declared in a way that would foreshadow a later obsession with enemas, ‘is the father of many diseases.’ His London pre-enema solution was to eat as much fruit as possible. Gandhi would lament later that he should have studied medicine. He even later toyed with switching from law like his friend Josiah Oldfield, who became a doctor at a fruitarian hospital in Kent – and who remained a friend of Gandhi’s even though they would later disagree about Indian independence. Gandhi’s obsession with natural treatments would be lifelong – an obsession that again can be traced to London, not India.
Looking back on Gandhi’s years in London, it is striking just how uninterested he was in those who weren’t part of his small, esoteric, nonconformist, middle-class world. In his writings he does not speak of the lives of the rich or the poor, or indeed the very large number of foreigners, mainly Europeans, living in London. He does not mention socialism, nor the major politicians of the day, nor the Irish Home Rule movement. He refers to the great Dock Strike of 1889, but only in passing. He did meet Dadabhai Naoroji, then a Liberal parliamentary candidate, and already London’s most famous Indian. But he fails to mention the great rumpus that was caused, while he was in London, by the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, who referred to Naoroji as ‘a black man’, whom no right-thinking English voter would elect as an MP. Salisbury was wrong, of course, and in 1892, the year after Gandhi left London, Naoroji was elected as MP for Finsbury Central, by a margin of just five votes, almost certainly helped to victory by the negative reaction to Salisbury’s comments.
What is perhaps most significant is that there is not the slightest sense on Gandhi’s part that he, or any other Indian, faced any racial discrimination while in London. And this is very important, given what ensued. On his return to India and during his subsequent time in South Africa, he did feel discriminated against, and his autobiography describes this in some detail. In 1892, the year after he left London, he was ejected from the office of a British official in India, with whom he hoped, as a London-qualified lawyer, to be able to talk on equal terms. The official got his peon to take Gandhi by the shoulder and throw him out of the room. The following year in South Africa, there was the famous Pietermaritzburg station incident, when Gandhi was thrown off a train by a railway official when a white passenger objected to Gandhi’s presence in a first-class carriage. In retrospect, London must have seemed like a colour-blind utopia.
Gandhi never lost his affection for London – even though he came to despair both of urban life and of British imperial rule. He visited the city four more times. During the period covered by the first three of those trips (in 1906, 1909 and 1914) he gradually emerged as a public figure – as South Africa’s most prominent Indian politician of the Edwardian era. Gandhi’s first biographer, writing in 1909, quotes him as saying, ‘Even now, next to India, I would rather live in London than in any other place in the world.’
In 1931, on his final visit, Gandhi was a celebrity, a superstar of sorts, followed everywhere by journalists and admirers. He was officially in London to take part in the Second Round Table Conference on the future of India, but he was much in demand socially. Charlie Chaplin asked to be introduced to him; he visited the prime minister in Downing Street, and the King-Emperor at Buckingham Place. He also found time to address the London Vegetarian Society, and to meet Maria Montessori, George Bernard Shaw and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This time, Gandhi chose to stay in a part of London that he did not know from his previous trips: the East End. He said he wished to live among the poor, and so he ended up sleeping in a small rooftop room in a newly built community centre in Bow. The centre, known as Kingsley Hall, was run by Muriel Lester, a middle-aged English Baptist who had visited Gandhi’s ashram in India. Most mornings before dawn, Lester and Gandhi, and others from his entourage, would head off on long walks. Muriel Lester called these the ‘sewer walks’, because their favoured routes were along fetid canals and, in particular, a covered sewer, now prettified as the Greenway. ‘I love the East End,’ Gandhi declared, ‘particularly the little urchins in the streets.’ But the poverty was, he said, ‘nothing’ compared to India. He pointed out how much things had improved in the forty years since he had lived in London as a student, and remarked on how he would see ‘outside each house a bottle of milk, and inside the door there is a strip of carpet, perhaps a piano in the sitting room’.
Kingsley Hall has survived, against the odds. Many surrounding buildings were destroyed during the Blitz. In the 1960s, the building became briefly famous all over again as the place where the psychiatrist R.D. Laing experimented, in a way that would have intrigued Gandhi, by living with some of his more disturbed patients. Kingsley Hall was then abandoned. In the 1980s, when Richard Attenborough wanted to film key scenes from the 1931 visit at the real Kingsley Hall, he found it derelict, but he was still able to use the tall brick facade of the building. The area, once solidly white working class, is now just as solidly Bangladeshi. Kingsley Hall has been restored, and is once again officially a community centre, with a circular blue plaque on the wall marking Gandhi’s visit: the only one of Gandhi’s many London residences to be marked in this way. The building was closed when I visited.
‘It’s always closed,’ said a passing Bangladeshi woman with a shopping trolley and a small boy.
‘Gandhi stayed there,’ I said, pointing at the plaque.
‘I know,’ she responded unenthusiastically, and then she screamed in Bengali at the small boy, who was clinging to her left leg. She raised her hand as if to hit him, but held back at the last moment. He cowered, and let go of her leg. They moved on, and so did I.
I found a passageway around the side of the building, and a locked door. There was an intercom and a small label next to a button on which were written the words gandhi foundation. A plummy English male voice answered, and invited me up onto the terrace. ‘You’re lucky to find me here, I’m only part-time,’ said the smart young man, who went by the name of William. ‘Just two days a week. The Gandhi Foundation is not very big, you see.’ He showed me the small room, six foot by eight, where Gandhi stayed in 1931, with a thin mattress and a suspiciously modern portable spinning wheel, with a label saying that it had been used by Gandhi.
‘Are you sure?’ I asked, pointing at the spinning wheel.
‘No, we don’t know for sure.’
We looked at the view from the terrace. Trees and new housing developments to the south and west.
‘None of this would have been here in 1931,’ I said gloomily.
‘But there are a few old houses left. Come and look on the other side.’
William pointed out the Bryant & May factory, famous for the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, which was over just before Gandhi turned up at Tilbury. And to the east was the twisted steel tower, constructed for the Olympics, designed by an Indian artist, and manufactured from Indian steel.
‘Britain’s tallest sculpture,’ William said.
‘Gandhi wouldn’t have approved. He hated the Eiffel Tower.’
William told me about the Gandhi Foundation, how it was set up after the film came out in the early eighties – and that the founder president was Richard Attenborough.
‘We try to promote knowledge about the life and teaching of Gandhi.’
‘Are you a follower of Gandhi?’
‘Yes, I am. And I’m a Christian. Lots of us are Christians.’ He showed me a leaflet for the annual summer school held in a medieval abbey. Lots of yoga, meditation and even some spinning. No meat and no alcohol. Gandhi would have approved.
‘Do you get much interest in your work from the local community?’
‘No, not really. Though we put on a play at the time of the Olympics. About Gandhi and Chaplin meeting in 1931. That was popular.’
I left bearing a large quantity of promotional literature and a peppermint-green T-shirt (for five pounds) bearing the likeness of Gandhi, and some words that he probably never said (‘An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind’). I traipsed downstairs and sat in the small park beside Kingsley Hall. No one was around so I stripped the top half of my body, ready to put on my Gandhi T-shirt – and then suddenly lots of young mothers, speaking a mix of Bengali and English came into the park. I quickly struggled back into my original shirt, ignored by the mothers, who may have mistaken me for a rough sleeper. A young boy, perhaps ten years old, circled me as I adjusted my clothing.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ he responded.
‘Do you know who Gandhi was?’ I showed him the image of Gandhi on my T-shirt.
‘Of course I do.’
‘Who was he then?’
‘He was an Indian. I saw a play about him.’
‘He came to London. He was a friend of Charlie Chaplin. He had no hair, and wore a white sheet, like a ghost. He was funny.’ The boy scratched his ear, thoughtfully, and as he ran off he shouted back at me, ‘He said we shouldn’t fight each other.’
Photograph © Sumati Morarjee Collection / Gandhiserve