Mahatma Gandhi promoted non-violence, justice and harmony between people of all faiths. This section also includes a dramatisation of Millie Polak's conversations with him.
Last updated 2009-08-25
Mahatma Gandhi promoted non-violence, justice and harmony between people of all faiths. This section also includes a dramatisation of Millie Polak's conversations with him.
Mahatma Gandhi has come to be known as the Father of India and a beacon of light in the last decades of British colonial rule, promoting non-violence, justice and harmony between people of all faiths.
Born in 1869 in Porbandar on the Western coast of India and raised by Hindu parents, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi found many opportunities in his youth to meet people of all faiths. He had many Christian and Muslim friends, as well as being heavily influenced by Jainism in his youth. Gandhi probably took the religious principle of 'Ahimsa' (doing no harm) from his Jain neighbours, and from it developed his own famous principle of Satyagraha (truth force) later on in his life.
Gandhi hoped to win people over by changing their hearts and minds, and advocated non-violence in all things. He himself remained a committed Hindu throughout his life, but was critical of all faiths and what he saw as the hypocrisy of organised religion.
Even as a young child his morals were tested when an inspector of schools came to visit during a spelling test. Noticing an incorrect spelling, his teacher motioned for him to copy his neighbour's spelling but he stoutly refused to do so. And after being told that the power to the British colonial rule was their meat-eating diet, Gandhi secretly began to eat meat. He soon gave up however, as he felt ashamed of deceiving his strictly vegetarian family.
At 19 years old, after barely passing his matriculation exam, he eagerly took the opportunity to travel to Britain to become a barrister. In Britain, he met with Theosophical Society members, who encouraged him to look more closely at Hindu texts and especially the Bhagavad Gita, which he later described as a comfort to him. In doing so, he developed a greater appreciation for Hinduism, and also began to look more closely at other religions, being particularly influenced by Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, and later on by Leo Tolstoy.
After passing his bar, he returned to India to practise law. He found he was unable to speak at his first court case, however, and when presented with the opportunity to go to South Africa, left India again.
When he arrived there, however, he became disgusted with the treatment Indians faced by the white settlers. He exhorted his countrymen to observe truthfulness in business and reminded them that their responsibility was the greater since their conduct would be seen as a reflection of their country. He asked them to forget about religious and caste differences and to give up their unsanitary habits. He wanted his country men to demonstrate their suitability for citizenship by showing they deserved it. He spent twenty years in South Africa fighting for, and finally gaining Indian citizenship rights.
His experience in South Africa was not spent in merely the political, however. He had been interested in religion since he was a child, but he in South Africa he began to study religion systematically. In his first year there, he read over 80 books on religion.
When he returned to India, his immediate problem was to settle his small band of relatives and associates in an ashram, which was a "group life lived in a religious spirit". His ashram was a small model of the whole moral and religious ideal. It did not enforce on its inmates any theology or ritual, but only a few simple rules of personal conduct. More like a large family than a monastery, it was filled with children and senior citizens, the uneducated and American and European scholars, devout followers and thinly disguised sceptics - a melting pots of different and sometimes opposing ideas, living peacefully and usefully with each other. He was the moral father of the ashram, and would fast as penance when any wrong was committed within its walls. Everyone was bound to him by love and a fear of hurting him.
His increasing influence over the Indian masses with 'satyagraha', which he first coined in his South Africa campaigns, was no less different. Gandhi's involvement with politics in the region meant that he had to tread carefully around the sometimes conflicting ideals of the Hindus and Muslims in the Indian National Congress. Although he initially believed that the British colonial influence was a good one, he was increasingly aware that to be truly equal, the Indians would need independence from British rule.
When he and other members of the Congress were arrested on 9 August 1942 for promoting this idea, a wave of violent disobedience swept the country. Dismayed by the violent turn of events, he entered into a long correspondence with the Government, but civil unrest continued during and after the war period. It was only the deep love that he had inspired in the Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, for him, that enabled him to control the violence when he threatened to fast until death.
Just when the Indians had attained victory, and the British had formally left, he was shot at by a young Hindu fanatic, angry at a man for promoting peace and tolerance for people of all faiths.
When the young Millie Downs travelled from London to South Africa at the very end of 1905 she thought she was going out simply to marry her fiancé; Henry Polak. But he had already become Gandhi's right-hand man, and Millie was to find that she was also marrying into the great Gandhian experiment, one that began with his domestic arrangements.
Millie and Henry lived in the same Johannesburg house with Gandhi, his wife, and their three sons; they started each day together grinding corn for the household's bread, and they ended each day with a communal vegetarian meal.
Within months the whole extended family moved to Gandhi's first large-scale communal experiment, the Phoenix Settlement outside Durban, which was to be the base for his political campaign and where his paper Indian Opinion was produced.
As Gandhi's campaign of non-violent resistance developed, he found in Millie Polak a constantly challenging conversational sparring-partner. She questioned him about the treatment of women in Indian culture, about his renunciation of sex, about his ever changing food-fads, and about the nature of his religious beliefs.
To her, he was not yet the 'Mahatma': he was a difficult, witty and contradictory man; and perhaps nothing reveals more about the young Gandhi than the conversations Millie Polak recorded. She places them in the context of communal life at Phoenix, where the dogs were expected to be vegetarian and there was endless heart-searching over whether green mambas could be killed.
From a programme broadcast 7th May 2004
Millie (speaking in a BBC archive interview):
I think one might mention here the change that took place in his dress as an indication of his inward change. When I first met him he would dress as an average middle class man of the professional classes would dress ... and later on, when he gave up the law, then he dressed very much as a peasant ...
When the BBC decided in 1954 to record a series of interviews with people who'd known Mahatma Gandhi well, one person they turned to was a then quite elderly Englishwoman by the name of Millie Polak.
Millie (archive, continued):
... And one of the things I used to question with him so often was: why did he always want to choose the most unpleasant way of doing anything?
Millie Polak probably knew Gandhi as well as any European woman ever did, and this is the only known recording of her voice. It was with her pen that she revealed far more about the privileged and somewhat prickly friendship she had with him. She'd first met Gandhi in South Africa at the very end of 1905.
It is with great pleasure that we announce the marriage of Mr H.S.L. Polak and Miss M.G. Downs, who recently arrived from London, at Johannesburg on Saturday. We offer our heartiest best wishes to the pair.
The Indian Opinion
So ran a small notice under the headline 'Congratulations' in the Durban weekly Indian Opinion on January 5th, 1906. Over the previous two years the paper had established itself as the mouthpiece of Gandhi's campaign for the rights of South Africa's Indians: and the following week it gave its readers a more detailed description of the newlyweds.
Mr Polak is the Transvaal representative of Indian Opinion. The lady whom he has married was born in London, and at the age of 18 she began work in connection with the Christian Socialistic movement. She is in thorough sympathy with the cause of Indians in South Africa. An informal reception for the couple was held last week at the home of Mr M.K. Gandhi, which was attended by a large number of friends and well-wishers.
The Indian Opinion
And the suburban Johannesburg home of Mr M.K. Gandhi was also, the young Millie Downs soon found out, to be the home in which she was to begin her married life. As she later wrote, it had been clear from the moment of her arrival in South Africa that in marrying Henry Polak she was also marrying Gandhi's cause.
At six o'clock in the morning of December 30th, 1905, I arrived at Jeppe Station, Johannesburg, and I found Mr Gandhi and Mr Polak waiting on the platform for me. My first impression of Mr Gandhi was of a medium-sized man, rather slenderly built. His voice was soft, rather musical, and almost boyishly fresh. I particularly noticed this as we chatted of the little things of my journey and proceeded to his home. The household, I learned, consisted of Mr Gandhi, his wife and three sons, aged eleven, nine and six, a young Englishman engaged in the telegraph service, a young Indian ward of Mr Gandhi's, and Mr Polak. My addition to the family completed its possibilities of accommodation.
And Millie soon discovered that the middle class comforts of London, to which, no doubt, she'd been accustomed, had no place in the Gandhi household.
Within a few days, we seemed to have settled into our new life. At 6.30 every morning the household assembled for the grinding of the wheat for the day - all bread being made at home. This piece of work was looked upon as a pleasant, if somewhat arduous morning exercise. Other exercise took the form of skipping, at which Mr Gandhi was adept.
Over the next nine years, until his final departure for India in 1914, the Polaks - both in Johannesburg and later in Durban - were to be part of an extended family that was at the very heart of Gandhi's experiments with how best to live. As he himself put it in the autobiography he published in the late '20s.
Just as I had Indians living with me as members of my family, so I had English friends living with me as members of my family. I hold that believers who have to see the same God in others that they see in themselves, must be able to live amongst all with sufficient detachment. Not that all who lived with me liked it. But I persisted in having them.
And Gandhi acknowledges that Millie Polak's arrival in January 1906 was a significant, and potentially fraught, moment for the household - especially, he seems to recognise, for his wife, Kasturba.
Up to now the Europeans living with us had been more or less known to me before. But now an English lady who was an utter stranger to us entered the family. I do not remember our ever having a difference with the newly married couple, but even if Mrs Polak and my wife had had some unpleasant experiences, they would have been no more than what can happen in the best-regulated homogeneous families. And mine was an essentially heterogeneous family, where people of all kinds and temperaments were freely admitted.
Gandhi was to call his autobiography 'Experiments with Truth', and to Judith Brown - Professor of Commonwealth History at Oxford and Britain's leading authority on Gandhi's life and thought - his family life was his first great experiment, breaking with strict Hindu domestic traditions that he and his wife would have lived by ever since their arranged marriage when they'd both been thirteen years old.
I think the earliest experiments are private and religious, and he doesn't become a prominent public experimenter until the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. The result is that he does get used to living with Europeans on terms of complete equality, breaking down old barriers of racism on the European side, but on the Indian side breaking down barriers of caste and ideas of purity and pollution. He would never in his childhood have had a European staying in the house, it would have been unheard of.
This household [was certainly not] easy for his wife... She worried deeply about having to share her house with people who are in Hindu terms untouchable, whether they happen to be Indian Christians or foreigners.
And it can only have been difficult for Kasturba Gandhi, who was still at this time illiterate, to experience her husband's close intellectual relationship with such untouchables - both male and female. From what she wrote later, Millie Polak seemed well aware of the delicacy of the situation.
As Mrs Gandhi did not speak much English, she did not take part in our deliberations. Almost immediately, however, we were thrown together, Mr Gandhi and my husband going to the office, and we soon managed to enjoy some kind of intercourse. In a very short time her English improved, so that later on, when she had lost some of her reserve with me and we went out to visit our few European friends, she would take part in the conversation.
Gandhi himself and Millie Polak conversed frequently, about every subject under the African sun, and in the evenings she would jot down what they had said to each other in her notebook. Nearly three decades later, in 1931, she published a small volume of reminiscences about her time as part of the Gandhi household in South Africa. Her book, which has never been reprinted, is called simply Mr Gandhi, the Man.
Not yet canonised as the Mahatma, the 'great soul'; not yet the leader of a major political movement; Gandhi is portrayed as Millie Polak found him - an exasperating, witty and contradictory man, struggling to shape daily life into what he thought it could and should be.
Millie herself, well-educated, curious, and usually self-confident, evidently felt able to challenge Gandhi about even the most sensitive things - like how he treated his wife around the house. One evening Gandhi says that he thinks women have a higher place in Eastern than in Western cultures: and Millie strongly disagrees:
Millie: I don't see that. The East has made her the subject of man. She seems to possess no individual life.
Gandhi: You're mistaken; the East has given her a position of worship. Have you not heard the story of Satyavan and Savitri, and how, when Satyavan died, Savitri wrestled with the God of Death for the return of her beloved?
Millie: But that seems to me just the point. In your mythology, woman is made to serve man, even to wrestling with the God of Death for him.
Gandhi: And do you think that it is giving to woman a lower or subordinate place in life when it is she who is depicted as the greatest of conquerors, when she is worshipped as the preserver?
Millie: That's beautiful in theory, I admit, but I don't find her worshipped. I find her always waiting on the pleasure of some man.
Gandhi: Isn't that because you have not yet understood? In the great things of life she is man's equal or superior. In the lesser things she may serve him, but is it not a privilege of the great to serve the least?
Millie: But do men think like that? Does a man really think that his wife is at least his equal when custom requires her to stand behind his chair while he sits and eats?
Gandhi: Do not mistake appearance for reality. Men have not reached the ideal yet, yet nearly all know it in their hearts.
And Gandhi was finally to reach one particular private ideal not long after this conversation took place - total celibacy, something he had privately agonised over for years. There can only have been a strange tension in the household over the question of sex. On the one hand were the newly married Polaks, keen to have children as soon as possible, and on the other Gandhi, who seemingly felt able, having conquered sexual desire himself, to lecture others on how spiritually debilitating it was.
One day, it seems, Millie couldn't take it any more, and challenged Gandhi on whether he had the right to talk about something he no longer practised.
Millie: I often think it's more difficult for the man or woman, cut off from vital experience, to be able to advise concerning it.
Gandhi: He can concentrate on the perfect.
Millie: But concentrating on the perfect won't help him to understand the mere human difficulties. The priest or teacher who has never known the horror of seeing someone he loves and is responsible for, starving for food, cannot understand the temptation of such a person stealing.
Gandhi: It is just because he can stand outside of the temptation that he is able to help. You do not go to the sick to help the sick, but to the strong and well.
Millie: I admit that, but I think I do not like your implied suggestion that it is wrong to produce children.
Gandhi: I didn't say it was wrong.
Millie: No, you didn't say so. But you did say something to the effect that it was a pandering to the flesh.
Gandhi: And is it not?
Millie: No; that reduces the production of children to a weakness, if not an evil. If it's wrong, God himself must be wrong, for it seems to be the only way he has of creating his children, and without it human life would cease on this planet.
Gandhi: Would that be so terrible?
Millie: I am not at all sure it would be right, until mankind has attained the perfection we believe it has to grow to.
Gandhi: But, you do believe that people who have a great mission or work to do should not spend their energy and time in caring for a little family, when they are called to a bigger field of work?
Millie: Yes, I believe that.
Gandhi: Then what are you quarrelling with me about?
Millie: Only that you are still making me feel that you think it to be a higher condition of life to be celibate than to be a parent.
Gandhi had come to think that sex was for procreation, not for pleasure. This is what he had to say on the subject in his autobiography:
I think it is the height of ignorance to believe that the sexual act is an independent function necessary like sleeping or eating. Seeing, therefore, that I did not desire more children I began to strive after self-control. There was endless difficulty in the task. We began to sleep in separate beds. I decided to retire to bed only after a day's work had left me completely exhausted.
His wife, though, it seems, was left in the dark as to what these stratagems were all about.
I took the vow of celibacy in 1906. I had not shared my thoughts with my wife until then, but only consulted her at the time of making the vow. She had no objection.
We'll have to take his word for it. If Millie Polak did try to talk to Kasturba Gandhi about sex, or the lack of it, she's far too discreet to say so. But, according to Judith Brown, celibacy for Gandhi was only superficially about the renunciation of sex: it was one building block, among others, in the construction of a life-style that would make what he called the pursuit of truth possible.
It's very much embedded in Hindu tradition this, that your physical state interacts with your spiritual state, so experimentation with celibacy and sexual control is one aspect of that; but also experimentation with different kinds of food, and different foods generate desire or spirituality, so Gandhi is within a long spiritual tradition that sets great store by issues to do with food and daily living.
Getting rid of desire, getting rid of extraneous links with things that would hold you back from the path of truth: so by cutting natural links with his family he's broadening his vision of what the family and the community are. By simplifying life he's getting rid of the things that people would want to keep hold of rather than experimenting with truth.
And while her sexual life was obviously something that Millie Polak could keep secret from Gandhi, her dietary one wasn't. As far as possible the extended family ate together in the evenings and, from what she says, dining chez Gandhi was a constant laboratory of denial.
Our dietary experiments were many and various. For some time, upon Mr Gandhi's advice, his wife and I cooked without refined sugar. Cooked fruits, puddings or cakes were sweetened with raw cane syrup. When this phase ended we had a salt-less table. Salt, Mr Gandhi contended, was bad not only for health but also for the character. Then he came to the conclusion that onions were bad for the passions, so onions were cut out. Milk too, Mr Gandhi said, affected the 'passion' side of human life and thereafter milk was abjured likewise. I did not mind the raw onions going, but I questioned the denial of milk...
Millie: Why is it, if milk stimulates the passions, that it is the best food for babies and young children?
Gandhi: The mother's milk is the correct food for babies, but it's not meant for adults.
Millie: I don't mind that, but I cannot see that the same argument can be used against it as a stimulant of the passions. If that were correct, a milk-fed child would be the most unnatural little brute. Think of a little child obsessed with sex because it had had a diet of milk. It's not reasonable.
... We talk about food probably quite as much as gourmands do. I'm sure we talk about food more than most people: we seem to be always thinking of the things we either may or may not eat. Sometimes I think it would be better if we just ate anything and didn't think about it at all.
Gandhi: Even flesh?
Millie: A man shall be judged by what comes out of his mouth, not by what he puts into it.
But Gandhi judged even the family pet by the latter criterion.
I had a nice healthy dog given to me, and, in accordance with the household tradition, tried to bring him up a vegetarian. He had a very great liking for grapes. We talked to all our friends of the splendid behaviour of our vegetarian dog, and Mr Gandhi was proud of him. But one evening a member of the household, falling over something at the back door, called out for assistance.
Investigation ensued, and we discovered a huge joint of uncooked venison. I then found out that for months our dog had been stealing chickens and anything else he could find and eating them raw. Some of our theories were thus found to have, if nothing worse, at least weak spots.
And Gandhi, Millie Polak soon had to accept, wanted a broader canvas on which to work out his theories. Only four months after she'd arrived in South Africa, she was told the household was moving, to become part of a larger social experiment at a place called Phoenix just outside Durban.
The Phoenix settlement was destroyed in ethnic violence during the 1980s. Today there's still a wonderful mixture of exotic vegetation in Phoenix: the camel-foot, the people tree, mangoes, the Indian temple tree and Indian mynah birds, brought across because they could talk so well.
That anything other than its exotic vegetation remains of Gandhi's communal settlement at Phoenix is largely the work of Durban-based architect Rodney Harber. Gandhi's own house, called Sarvadoya, and all the other original buildings were razed to the ground in a frenzy of anti-Indian violence in 1985 during the dark years at the tail-end of apartheid. It was important for his home city, Rodney Harber felt, that Phoenix lived up to its name and rose again.
I came here a few days after that and went to Sarvadoya, I was shocked to see it like that, and found a smouldering book at the back. It was Tolstoy's book, it had "To my dear friend Karamchand, from Leo", and I took it to the local history museum. It just shows the sort of stuff that may have been lost in the process of the turmoil. All that remained was the floor slab and the chimney; every piece apart from that was just taken and dragged away to build shacks out of. In fact I understand there's a shabeen, which is the local word for an illegal pub here, with the original roof of Gandhi's house. I haven't found it, no-one wants to show me, but the owner boasts that he's got Gandhi's house as his shabeen. I thought a resource like this couldn't just be cast away.
Though it took fourteen years of patient negotiation with the people who'd occupied the site, Rodney Harber was finally able to re-build Gandhi's house.
Certainly this middle part [of the house] is original, the raised floor; there was a veranda on the front in some of the photographs, maybe where that cement floor is now, we don't know. But in the process of reconstructing it we had to work with what we knew was true for sure. So it was like this in 1927, which of course was already fourteen years after Gandhi had gone. We reconstructed it to what it was in the photographs we could find. It was fascinating forensic architecture, that's the only way to describe it, scratching looking for paint colours, finding old photographs, blowing them up digitally, producing working drawings for plasterers, finding where the framework was by looking for the drive screws on the outside of the sheeting, it was great from that point of view. This was the living room ... there was a little work-bench there ... but the most important part is going out with the kitchen on the one side and this wonderful study which had a lot of really valuable books.
Gandhi had acquired the land at Phoenix because in 1904 he'd spent a sleepless night on a train from Johannesburg to Durban reading a book that Henry Polak had given him. The book was John Ruskin's moral and aesthetic critique of industrial capitalism Unto This Last, and it convinced Gandhi that the trappings of western materialism were indeed traps. He brought his extended family here to experiment with living as simply as possible. But Millie Polak, for one, didn't much like what she saw.
My first view of Phoenix disappointed and depressed me. Mrs Gandhi, too, did not feel happy at being transplanted from the town, with its domestic and human amenities, to the more primitive conditions which prevailed at the settlement. She and I shared a little room the first night we arrived, and lay awake talking and grumbling for hours.
It's now densely built over with small houses as far as one can see, but a hundred years ago this was virgin territory. The original settlers here lived under canvas while they constructed simple corrugated iron shacks, and each household was given a small plot for growing vegetables. Phoenix was described at the time as "a hundred acres of fruit trees and snakes", and what to do with the resident mambas was a constant problem for a community in which all life was held to be sacred.
One day, suspended from an overhanging bough of a tree at the spot where water was fetched daily, was observed a big green mamba, one of the deadliest snakes found in South Africa. The colonist who first saw it did not know what to do. Non-killing was a fundamental principle at Phoenix; but no one could argue or reason with a snake, and the snake seemed absolutely disinclined to go away. Eventually an Indian colonist, Mr S., settled the problem. He was an old hand at the gun, which he fetched and then shot the snake. He was the father of two little girls and believed that the safety and life of the children were of greater importance than those of a snake.
Which was not a position the community could have any confidence Gandhi himself would share.
I do not think Mr Gandhi complained to Mr S. of his action, and nor did anyone else. But all of us thought about it, and some of us secretly believed Mr S. to be quite right and wanted to thank him for having taken prompt and effective action. The incident, however, was not allowed to be used as a precedent.
But Phoenix wasn't just about a group of like-minded people experimenting with living together as simply as possible. They also had a political job to do: and everyone in the community, male and female, adults and children, were expected to pull their weight to bring out the weekly edition of the newspaper Indian Opinion.
The printing press had no mechanical means at its disposal, for the oil-engine had broken down, and at first animal power was utilised, two donkeys being used to turn the handle of the machine. But Mr Gandhi, ever a believer in man doing his own work, soon altered this, and four hefty Zulu girls were procured for a few hours on printing day. These took the work in turns, two at a time, while the other two rested: but every able-bodied settler, Mr Gandhi included, took their turn at the handle, and thus the copies of the paper were ground out.
Gandhi himself wrote a large part of each issue of the paper, and its columns show perhaps more clearly than anything else the particular mix of the personal, the religious and the political that became his unique public stance. The focus, naturally, was on the struggle against anti-Indian discrimination in both Natal and the Transvaal, and on how it was being viewed in Britain and in India.
But public wrongs, Gandhi had come to argue, could only be effectively resisted by those who lived rightly: so amidst the political detail readers would find admonishing editorials about such things as tobacco:
The habit of smoking among boys is undoubtedly harmful. It undermines their constitution and weakens their mental capacity.
The Indian Opinion
It is sham Europeanism that Indians have to be warned against, and every son of India who falls into the sin of intemperance is a traitor to the race from which he springs.
The Indian Opinion
The paper instructed its readers on 'the importance of the admission of fresh air into bedrooms'; and, more worryingly from a public-health point of view, on how to deal with cholera and typhoid:
Cholera germs are killed in fifteen minutes by lemon-juice or apple-juice, and typhoid fever germs in half an hour by these acids, even when considerably diluted. Instead of telling a man to have his stomach washed out, we can now tell him to drink orange juice.
The Indian Opinion
If western scientific medicine was one thing Gandhi railed against, another was religious intolerance: and he used the pages of Indian Opinion to enlighten his readers about faiths other than their own. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Theosophists were all given space. And for Millie Polak, as the political situation impinged more and more on the life of the community, what we would now call inter-faith gatherings in the Gandhis' living-room at Phoenix became ever more important:
Here, every Sunday evening, in that little lamp-lit corrugated-iron room , all the members gathered for a kind of religious service. Mr Gandhi usually opened the proceedings with a reading from the 'Bhagavad Gita' and would also read passages from the New Testament. Then there would be English hymns, and some Gujarati sacred music. Mr Gandhi thoroughly enjoyed the hymn-singing. He had two great favourites of which, through all the years I knew him, he never wearied. The first was the hymn of consecration, 'Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee'. The other was one that he often quoted when he felt himself surrounded by difficulties, 'Lead Kindly Light'.
And one of the very first things Millie Polak had asked Gandhi about after her arrival in South Africa was why he kept a picture of Jesus on the wall above his desk.
Gandhi: I did once seriously think of embracing the Christian faith. The gentle figure of Christ, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused or struck, but to turn the other cheek - I thought it was a beautiful example of the perfect man.
Millie: But you did not embrace Christianity did you?
Gandhi: No. I studied your scriptures for some time and thought earnestly about them. I was tremendously attracted to Christianity; but eventually I came to the conclusion that there was nothing really in your scriptures that we had not got in ours, and that to be a good Hindu also meant I would be a good Christian.
Millie: Tell me, do you believe in conversion, in changing from one form of faith to another?
Gandhi: What do you yourself feel?
Millie: It doesn't please me, somehow. I couldn't do it.
Gandhi: I think that's right. If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too. There is only one God, and there are many paths to him. What do you think is the essential lesson for man in the teaching of Christianity?
Millie: I could think of two or three; but the one that stands out strongest in my mind at the moment is love.
Gandhi: Yes, and Hinduism teaches the same great truth, and Mohamedanism and Zoroastrianism, too.
Millie: But I've heard all about the caste system in India. Do you think Hinduism does teach 'all men are brothers' as Christianity does?
Gandhi: Do not take men's imperfect interpretation, as you see it, for the real teaching of any great faith. You would not suggest to me that the Christian world lives as brothers, would you? Think of its wars, its hatreds, its poverty and its crime. If we realised our ideals, they would cease to be ideals. We should have nothing to strive for.
Gandhi, of course, was to work tirelessly to expose and undermine the Hindu caste system. But while in South Africa he had to accept that Millie Polak wasn't going to keep quiet about those aspects of Indian culture she found offensive. Towards the end of their time together at Phoenix a middle-aged follower of Gandhi returned to the settlement from a trip to India bringing with him a newly-acquired child bride.
Millie: It's disgraceful that such a marriage should have been permitted in any country. She is only a child.
Gandhi: It is, indeed, disgraceful.
Millie: But will they live in wedlock?
Gandhi: I am afraid so.
Millie: The man should be whipped. It's an outrage to take a child of that age in marriage.
Gandhi: I know how you feel about it. Your heart is sad for the child. My heart aches too.
Millie: And Indian law permits it!
Gandhi: The laws relating to marriage in most countries permit a man to marry a young girl.
Millie: Yes, I know the laws do, but custom is against it.
Gandhi: You are right to be angry. But do you not think that women have a share in the blame, too?
Millie: No, no. I cannot believe that a mother would willingly give her little daughter of twelve or so to be the wife of a robust man of over forty. It is not natural.
Gandhi: But she does do so. She has done so. This marriage was probably arranged by the women of the family. Certainly it was accepted by them, and it is women who must exert themselves to alter these things.
Millie: How can they? What freedom have they to alter these dreadful customs that priests and laws have forced upon them?
Gandhi: Yet they must. They must rouse themselves to do their share in the work of reform. It is for them to set the standard of life. It is their privilege and their duty.
Millie: But what can they do? What power have they in India?
Gandhi: A great deal more than you think! If nothing else, they can refuse to have anything to do with these horrible things, and in refusing to be a partner in a man's shame, the conduct of life must be raised, for men will have to listen when women refuse to obey.
Millie: But would not force be brought to bear upon them then? They would be broken, as they have been before in the world's history.
Millie: And what then?
Gandhi: They can die. And what man can prevail against a dead woman?
And Millie Polak couldn't resist a particularly difficult request Gandhi made of her just before he finally left South Africa to return to India in 1914. She was anxious, after more than eight years away, to get back to England with her husband and the two young sons they now had.
But Gandhi needed people he could trust to stay and continue his work at Phoenix; and when he asked the Polaks, they agreed. So it would have been with a heavy heart that Millie travelled down to the Cape to say goodbye to the brilliantly strange Indian man with whom she had shared so much over the previous years.
Mr Gandhi's arrangements for leaving were hastily made and soon the day of his departure came. I accompanied the party, with my husband, to Capetown, and we were there paraded in carriages round the town preceded by a brass band which played a melody that I knew as 'We won't go home till morning', but which probably the musicians believed to be something quite different and most suitable to the occasion.
Mr Gandhi sat patiently through it all, seeming neither pleased nor sorry at anything that was happening or had happened. As I watched the boat steam out I felt an intolerable sense of blankness come into my life.
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