The clock struck ten. The chimes rang out loud and clear in the pleasant skies of Pietermaritzburg as we crossed the road towards Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. It is interesting to see how cities acquire stature and meaning by the happening of some occurrence in their limits. Pietermaritzburg, the capital city of the province of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa is a mélange of cultures and a repository of history. However, it is undoubtedly Gandhiji’s footprint that lends a majestic aura to the place.
Let me begin from the start of the journey. The city of Pietermaritzburg is 90 kms or 56 miles, and about an hour’s drive, from Durban. A scenic drive, through hills ablaze with bougainvilleas of vibrant hues leads to the city, which retains a quaint country character. Nestled in hills, it has sprawling structures with sloping tiled roofs. There are neither skyscrapers nor other urban structures that lend uniformity to contemporary cities all over the world.
For most people, especially visiting Indians, the first stop in the city is the railway station. With British style colonial architecture, it has on incomparable old world charm. Still a functioning railway station, it reminded me of some of India’s small-town railway stations. On the platform, an empty train stood as we walked towards a small plinth installed at one side. In black granite, the white lettering immortalizes the spot around which on June 7, 1893, Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a first class compartment. The story is now legend.
A young barrister fresh from England boarded the train to travel from Durban to Pretoria. Although he held a valid first class ticket, he was asked to move to the van compartment because a white man objected to his presence. When he refused, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was unceremoniously thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg in the night. The momentous journey to India’s freedom had begun on that railway station.
As I stood there, it seemed such an ordinary place. Across the fence on the street, one could see signboards of ‘Station supermarket’ and ‘Station café’ in red.
On that memorable night, Gandhiji had shivered inside the waiting room. Today, that waiting room has been preserved as it is. A small room with a wooden floor and a single wooden bench. The only addition is a small oil painting of Mahatma Gandhi hanging above the bench. In 1939, before his 70th birthday, the missionary, John R. Mott, asked Gandhiji to single out the most creative experience of his life. Gandhiji remembered the night at Pietermaritzburg.
“I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room, I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date,” he said.
The next morning, he sent a telegram of protest from the Pietermaritzburg Post Office to the General Manager of the Railways. Gandhiji’s journey of revolution had begun. A night spent in a small room on a wooden bench had changed the course of his life. That change was to impact humanity in a momentous and continuing manner.
Outside, in the entrance hall of the station, many plaques about Gandhiji are displayed. A poem by the late Fatima Meer on the Municipality of Pietermaritzburg granting ‘Freedom of the City’ to Gandhiji in 1997 is very moving.
The tryst with Gandhiji’s sojourn in Pietermaritzburg does not end with the station. In the centre of the city is a beautiful red brick building. Websites will tell you that the Town Hall is the largest brick building in the Southern Hemisphere.
It is beautiful with a lyrical sense that is slowly disappearing. The bells of the clock tower of the Town Hall chimed at 10 a.m. as we walked to Gandhiji’s statue installed on Church Street. Bishop Desmond Tutu inaugurated the statue in 1993. At the bottom inscribed is a simple quote “My life is my message”
The meeting hall in the Town Hall has been preserved as it was 110 years ago. When we peeped in, a meeting was in progress. In this meeting hall on 7-11-1912, Gandhiji and Gokhale had addressed a public meeting. The visitor’s book signed by them is available for viewing. Pietermaritzburg has many other interesting things to offer.
You can visit museums, the old prison, get a flavour of authentic Zulu life, or get a truly British experience with a picnic basket in the botanical gardens. It is however the connection with the Mahatma that lingers.
Sometimes in life, a fall makes one realize the potential of one’s own destiny. As you stand in that bare waiting room and wonder, it is the only thought that stays.