Gandhi's master biographer uncovers an unlikely friendship with an English couple

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From a friendship formed over vegetarianism, to living with anti-establishment ex-pats in Johannesburg, the great 'Enemy of the British' actually had many key links with Brits, says Ramachandra Guha

In April 1931, Mohandas K Gandhi attended an inter-faith meeting in Bombay. He had just been released from one of his many terms in prison. Now, while listening to Christian hymns and Sanskrit slokas, he had as his companions the Admiral's daughter, Madeleine Slade (known in India as Mirabehn) and the Oxford scholar, Verrier Elwin. Thus, as Elwin wrote to his family afterwards, "this 'Enemy of the British Empire' sat for his prayer between two Britishers!"

Gandhi's first English friend was a doctor named Josiah Oldfield. He met him while a law student in London, their friendship consolidated by a shared interest in – not to say passion for – vegetarianism. For a time Gandhi and Oldfield shared an apartment, in Bayswater, hosting parties where guests were served lentil soup, boiled rice and large raisins. On other evenings they sallied together into the world, "lecturing at clubs and any other public meetings where we could obtain a hearing for our gospel of peace and health".

After being called to the Bar, Gandhi returned to India, where he failed to establish himself at the Bombay High Court. He was rescued by an invitation from South Africa. Called to settle a dispute between Gujarati merchants, he stayed on for two decades, serving the Indian diaspora as their lawyer, spokesman and propagandist.

Gandhi's time in South Africa has been given short shrift by biographers. Yet it was absolutely formative. It was here that he developed his ideas of religious pluralism, his commitment to ending social discrimination, his precocious environmentalism and, above all, the techniques of non-violent resistance for which he remains best known.

Largely forgotten now are Gandhi's closest friends in South Africa, who were an English couple named Henry and Millie Polak. Henry was a radical Jew, Millie a Christian feminist. They had fallen in love in London, whereupon Henry's family sent him away to South Africa. He met Gandhi in a vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg, and was immediately attracted to the Indian lawyer and his cause. Gandhi, on his part, took it upon himself to have Henry reunited with Millie. When Polak's father claimed that the girl was not robust enough for marriage, Gandhi wrote that if she was indeed fragile, "in South Africa, amidst loving care, a beautiful climate and a simple life, she could gain the physical strength she evidently needed".

The appeal was successful. Millie arrived in Johannesburg in the last week of December 1905. The next day, Henry and Millie went with Gandhi to be married by the Registrar of European Marriages. The Hindu hoped to bear witness to this union of Jew and Christian; the Registrar thought this was not permitted by law. He asked them to come back the next working day. But the next day was Sunday, and the day after that, New Year's Day. And Millie and Henry had waited long enough already. So Gandhi went across to the office of the Chief Magistrate, to whom the Registrar reported. He convinced him that nothing in the law debarred a brown man from witnessing a European marriage. The Magistrate, remembered Gandhi, merely "laughed and gave me a note to the Registrar and the marriage was duly registered".

Henry Polak, left, and Gandhi, centre, pose at the attorney's office in South Africa (Alamy) Henry Polak, left, and Gandhi, centre, pose at the attorney's office in South Africa (Alamy)
The deed done, the couple moved into the lawyer's home on Albermarle Street, where Gandhi lived with his wife, Kasturba, and their four sons. Millie began teaching the boys English grammar and composition, while helping Kasturba in the kitchen. The two women became friends, with the newcomer's buoyant nature overcoming the matriarch's natural reserve and her lack of familiarity with the English language.

For the Gandhis and the Polaks, the day began early. At 6.30am, the men and boys assembled to grind wheat. Before breakfast, Gandhi would do some skipping, a form of exercise at which he was apparently quite adept. After the men went off to work, the children were set to their lessons, supervised by the women. In the evening, the family sat down for dinner, an extended meal where the day's happenings were discussed. Afterwards, if there were no guests, passages from religious texts (the Bhagavad Gita being an especial favourite) were read out loud.

Living with the Gandhis, Millie concluded that with regard to marital relations at least, there was a fundamental difference between East and West. Indian husbands were allowed periods of rest and contemplation, but their wives had to work, work, work. "The East has made [woman] the subject of man," Millie told Gandhi: "She seems to possess no individual life". He answered that she was mistaken: "The East has given her a position of worship." As proof, he mentioned the legend of Satyavan and Savitri. When Satyavan died, Savitri wrestled with the God of Death for the return of his beloved. "She had a hard battle to fight," said Gandhi, but after showing "the highest courage, fortitude, love and wisdom", eventually won her husband back to her side.

Millie answered that this story actually proved her point. In Indian mythology, it appeared "woman is made to serve man, even to wrestling with the God of Death for him". In myth and in reality (seeing how Gandhi treated Kasturba), Millie found Indian women "always waiting on the pleasure of some man".

There were also arguments between Polak and Gandhi. The Englishman thought the Indian too even-tempered – when he was slandered in the press, he should write back polemically rather than ignore the matter. Polak, an ardent socialist, found Gandhi to be without much interest in economic theories; and far too absorbed in questions of religion. Polak also thought that rather than spend so much time teaching his children Gujarati, Gandhi should make his children proficient in English, the language of the world.

Once, after a particularly intense debate between Polak and Gandhi, Kasturba drew Millie aside and asked what the fuss was about. The Englishwoman tried to explain, as best she could, the intricacies of the political problem that so exercised the men. Millie remembered that as she outlined the argument to Kasturba, "a suspicion flitted through my mind that she was not altogether cross that Mr Polak was cross with Bapu [as Gandhi was known to his family]. She was vexed with him sometimes, and the anger of another person who, she knew, cared very much for him seemed to justify her own".

For all their disagreements, Millie retained a healthy respect for her Indian friend. She was particularly struck by how hard he worked. Gandhi attended to his clients all day, including Sunday. The Polaks became accustomed to Indians coming home at all hours, seeking the counsel of their lawyer and leader. As Millie remembered, "it was not an unusual thing to have four or more men return at midnight with Mr Gandhi, and when all were too worn out to continue to talk, rugs would be thrown down the passage or anywhere else for the visitors to get a few hours' sleep".

Jewish radical lawyer Henry Polak was one of Gandhi's closest advisers Jewish radical lawyer Henry Polak was one of Gandhi's closest advisers
For a 'coloured' couple and a white couple to live together, in 1905, would have been unusual in an English city like London, or in an Indian city like Bombay. In the context of South Africa it was revolutionary.

The prejudice against the mixing of the races was perhaps greater here than anywhere else in the world. For Gandhi to befriend the Polaks was an act of bravery; for them to befriend Gandhi was an act of defiance.

How very singular this mixed-race household was is revealed by the diary of Gandhi's nephew, Chhaganlal. In January 1906, Chhaganlal travelled to Johannesburg from Natal to meet his uncle. This is how he saw the next few days:

January 4, 1906: Arrived at Johannesburg station ... Bhai [Gandhi] and Mrs Polak were there to receive me. Reached home at 7 o'clock with them. After a wash went to the table for dinner. Found the Westernised style very odd. I began to wonder, but could not decide whether our ways were better or theirs ... Before the meal Bhai recited a few verses from the Gita and explained their meaning in Gujarati...

January 5, 1906: Getting up at 5am. Was ready by 6.30 ... Everyone went out to work without any breakfast. I walked with Bhai to his office, about two miles away. Talked about the Indian Opinion on the way. Bhai started work in his office exactly at 9.30am. Seeing a girl working in the office made me wonder. In the afternoon Bhai and others had a meagre meal of bananas and groundnuts. The accounts of the press were then carefully gone through. Returned home with Bhai at 5.30pm. I began to wonder again when I found the English friends, the Polaks, mixing freely with everyone.

January 6, 1906: A few people were invited to dinner at Bhai's house in connection with Mr Polak's marriage. Among the guests were English people, Muslims and Hindus. I felt that they had crossed the limits in their jokes at dinner.

January 11, 1906: Smith, Polak and Mrs Polak, who are staying at Bhai's house, behave very freely, which makes me think.

Chhaganlal was puzzled and confused by what he saw: the white lady secretary in his uncle's office, the jokes and the banter and the displays of physical affection (betweenf Henry and Millie) in his uncle's home, the eating at the same table of Indians and Europeans. To his conventional Hindu eyes the household was eccentric. To the conventional white Christian in Johannesburg, the household was positively heretical.

In 1907, after unsuccessfully petitioning the Transvaal and Imperial Governments to have a racial ordinance withdrawn, Gandhi launched a campaign of civil disobedience. Between 1907 and 1910 some 3,000 Indians in the Transvaal (35 per cent of the community's population) courted arrest. Gandhi himself spent three terms in prison. In the leader's absence, Henry Polak kept his journal, Indian Opinion, afloat. He assisted Gandhi's clients, having qualified as a lawyer himself. He also made two long trips to India, raising money for the struggle.

Millie Polak kept Gandhi's campaigns running while he and Henry were in prison Millie Polak kept Gandhi's campaigns running while he and Henry were in prison
In 1913, Gandhi launched another round of civil disobedience. The protests, this time, had two principal targets: an act which declared marriages conducted under other than Christian rites invalid; and an annual tax in Natal that only Indians had to pay. Thousands of workers in sugar plantations and coal mines breached the law forbidding them to cross provincial boundaries. Gandhi went to jail, as did his wife Kasturba.

Joining them in prison were several European friends, among them Henry Polak. At his trial, Polak told the judge that he had joined the Indian struggle as an Englishman, a Jew, and a member of the legal profession. "As an Englishman," said Polak, "it is impossible for me to sit silent while the Government of the Union, claiming to speak in my name, repudiate, as they have done twice this year, their solemn pledges towards my fellow-British subject of Indian nationality, in defiance of what is best in British public opinion, and regardless of Imperial obligations and responsibilities towards the people of India...

"As a Jew, it is impossible for me to associate myself, even passively, with the persecution of any race or nationality. My co-religionists to-day, in certain parts of Europe, are undergoing suffering and persecution on racial grounds, and, finding the same spirit of persecution in this country, directed against the Indian people, I have felt impelled to protest against it with every fibre of my being.

"As a member of the legal profession, I have made a declaration of loyalty to the Crown and to do my duty as an attorney of this honourable court. In taking the part of the Indian passive resisters, loyal subjects of the Crown, in their demand for justice, I claim to have proved my loyalty in the most practical possible manner, and, as an attorney, I claim to have given the only advice to them possible to me as an honourable man who places justice before loyalty and moral law before human law."

When Millie Graham came out to South Africa in 1905 to join Henry Polak, she was prepared for a life of service. But surely she would not have anticipated that this would land her husband in prison. Now, she was consoled and cheered by a lovely letter from her husband's best friend, which read:

My Dear Millie,

You are brave. So I know you will consider yourself a proud and happy wife in having a husband who has dared to go to gaol for a cause he believes in. The £3 tax is the cause of the helpless and the dumb. And I ask you to work away in the shape of begging, advising and doing all you can. Do not wait for their call but call the workers. Seek them out even though they should insult you. [Gandhi's secretary] Miss S[chlesin] knows the struggle almost like Henry. Assist her. I have asked her to move forward and backward and assume full control... May you have strength of mind and body to go through the fire.

With love,

Yours

Bhai [Brother].

Closely following the struggle was Gandhi's mentor, the Indian nationalist and social reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Gokhale now sent an Anglican clergyman named Charles Freer Andrews – who had been resident in India since 1904 – to mediate between the protesters and the South African Government. Andrews and Gandhi hit it off instantly. They had much in common, as men of conscience who had made it their life's mission to reconcile East and West, brown and white, coloniser and colonised, Hinduism and Christianity.

Andrews helped secure a settlement that allowed Gandhi to return to his homeland. Over the next two decades, the priest stayed often in Gandhi's ashram in Ahmedabad, attended to him during several of his fasts, and lobbied furiously with the Raj on his behalf. Notably, while his admirers called Gandhi 'Mahatma' or 'Bapu' (father), and his critics referred to him as 'MK Gandhi' or 'Mr Gandhi', among the few people to address the Indian leader by his first name, 'Mohan', was CF Andrews.

It has always seemed to me that the Indo-British relationship is far less acrimonious than that between the French and the Algerians, the Dutch and the Indonesians, the Americans and the Vietnamese. One reason is that while in the heyday of Empire, the British Establishment was resolutely opposed to Indian independence, the injustice of colonial rule was recognised by a series of articulate dissenters – among them Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and Michael Foot. Another may be that very early in his career, the pre-eminent leader of Indian nationalism forged close friendships with English men and women. The next time an Indian Prime Minister visits London, it might be a good idea for Her Majesty's Government to have him (or her) unveil a suitably understated memorial to Josiah Oldfield, Madeleine Slade, CF Andrews, and Henry and Millie Polak.

Ramachandra Guha's book 'Gandhi Before India' has just been released by Allen Lane (£30). He lives in Bangalore

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