After reaching India I spent some time going about the country. It was the year 1901 when the Congress met at Calcutta under the presidentship of Mr. (later Sir) Dinshaw Wacha.
And I of course attended it. It was my first experience at the Congress. From Bombay, I travelled on the same train as Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, as I had to speak to him about conditions in South Africa.
I knew the kingly style in which he lived. He had engaged a special saloon for himself, and I had orders to take my opportunity of speaking to him by travelling in his saloon for one stage.
I, therefore, went to the saloon and reported myself at the appointed station. With him were Mr Wacha, and Mr. (now Sir) Chimanlal Setalvad. They were discussing politics. As soon as Sir Pherozeshah saw me, he said, ‘Gandhi, it seems nothing can be done for you.
Of course, we will pass the resolution you want. But what rights have we in our own country? I believe that, so long as we have no power in our, you cannot fare better in the Colonies.’
I was taken aback. Mr Setalvad seemed to concur in the view; Mr· Wacha cast a pathetic look at me. I tried to plead with Sir Pherozeshah, but it was out of the question for one like me to prevail upon the uncrowned king of Bombay.
I contented myself with the fact that I should be allowed to move my resolution. You will of course show me the resolution,’ said Mr Wacha, to cheer me up. I thanked him and left them at the next stop.
So we reached Calcutta. The President was taken to his camp with great eclat by the Reception Committee. I asked a volunteer where I was to go. He took me to the Ripen College, where several delegates were being put up. Fortune favoured me·
Lokamanya was put up in the same block as I. I have a recollection that he came a day later. And as was natural, Lokamanya would never be without his darbar.
Was I a painter, I could paint him as I saw him seated on his bed, so vivid is the whole scene in my memory. Of the numberless people that called on him, I can recollect today only one, namely the late Babu Motilal Ghose, editor of the Amrita Bazar Patrika.
Their loud laughter and their talks about the wrong-doings of the ruling race cannot be forgotten· But I propose to examine in some detail the appointments in this camp. The volunteers were clashing against one another. You asked one of them to do something· He delegated it to another, and he in his turn to a third, and so on; and as for the delegates, they were neither here nor there.
I made friends with a few volunteers. I told them some things about South Africa, and they felt somewhat ashamed. I tried to bring home to them the secret of service. They seemed to understand, but service is no mushroom growth. It presupposes the will first, and then experience·
There was no lack of will on the part of those good simple-hearted young men, but their experience was nil. The Congress would meet three days every year and then go to sleep.
What training could one have out of a three days’ show once a year? And the delegates were of a piece with the volunteers. They had no better or longer training. They would do nothing themselves.
‘Volunteer, do this,’ ‘Volunteer, do that,’ were their constant orders. Even here I was face to face with untouchability in a fair, measure.
The Tamilian kitchen was far away from the rest. To the Tamil delegates even the sight of others, whilst they were dining, meant pollution. So a special kitchen had to be made for them in the College compound, walled in by wicker-work. It was full of smoke which choked you.
It was a kitchen, dining room, washroom, all in one, a close safe with no outlet.
To me, this looked like a travesty of Varnadharma.’ If I said to myself, there was such untouchability between the delegates of the Congress, one could well imagine the extent to which it existed amongst their constituents. I heaved a sigh at the thought. There was no limit to insanitation.
Pools of water were everywhere. There were only a few latrines, and the recollection of their stink still oppresses me. I pointed it out to the volunteers. They said point-blank:
‘That is not our work, it is the scavenger’s work.’ I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder. I procured one and cleaned the latrine. But that was for me.
The rush was so great, and the latrines were so few, that they needed frequent cleaning; but that was more than I could do. So I had to content myself with simply ministering to myself.
And the others did not seem to mind the stench and the dirt. But that was not all. Some of the delegates did not scruple to use the verandahs outside their rooms for calls of nature at night. In the morning I pointed out the spots to the volunteers.
No one was ready to undertake the cleaning, and I found no one to share the honour with me of doing it. Conditions have since considerably improved, but even today thoughtless delegates are not wanting who disfigure the Congress camp by committing nuisance wherever they choose, and all the volunteers are not always ready to clean up after them.
I saw that, if the Congress session were to be prolonged, conditions would be quite favourable for the outbreak of an epidemic.