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When Gandhi visited Madras

Gandhi, along with his wife, Kasturba, was in Chennai in 1915. It was at this time that a correspondence began between V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and Gandhi which continued for about six months. VOC seems to have preserved the letters, which A.R. VENKATACHALAPATHY sheds light on.


In Chennai _ (sitting) Gandhi with Kasturba. Behind her is G.A. Natesan.

BETWEEN the middle of 1915 and early 1916, Gandhi exchanged a series of letters with a personality whose name does not occur even once in the 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The person in question is V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (or VOC), who between 1906-08 during the Swadeshi movement, dominated the national movement in Tamil Nadu.

Gandhi was not yet the Mahatma then. Fresh from decades-long political activity in South Africa, Gandhi was still finding his feet, politically. He had arrived in Chennai on April 17, 1915, along with his wife, Kasturba. The couple stayed at 60, Thambu Chetty Street (George Town), the residence of G.A. Natesan, the nationalist publisher. He was to stay in Chennai (Madras) for three weeks before setting out for Ahmedabad on May 8.

V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, born in Ottappidaram, now in Tuticorin district, in 1872 was about three years younger to Gandhi. Unlike Gandhi, he was neither a barrister nor did he acquire a degree, just passing a second grade pleadership examination in 1894, after completing school, which enabled him to practise at the local sub-magistrate's court. However, he soon moved to practise at Tuticorin, the port town nearby. He evinced interest in Saiva Siddhanta, taking part in the local Saivite association and pursuing his literary and religious interests. But with 1906, "The New Spirit" that was the outcome of the Swadeshi movement, everything changed. The year and a half that followed radically changed his life, propelling him to brief all-India fame and immortality in the Tamil world.

Flourishing commerce between Tuticorin and Colombo was the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISN) and its Tuticorin agents, A. & F. Harvey. Inspired by Swadeshi ideals, V.O.C. garnered the support of local merchants, and launched the first indigenous Indian shipping enterprise, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, thus earning for himself the sobriquet, "Kappalottiya Tamilan (The Tamil who launched ships"). The fledgling company soon made it clear that it was up against the very might of the colonial Indian state. VOC's pioneering attempt was lauded across the sub-continent and he went on to purchase two steamships, S.S. Gallia and S.S. Lawoe for the company.

His efforts to widen the base of the Swadeshi movement, by mobilising the workers of the Coral Mills, also managed by A. & F. Harvey, accentuated the contradiction. In the nationalist movement, he backed Bal Gangadhar Tilak, leading a contingent (which included the poet Subramania Bharati) from the Madras Presidency to the Surat Congress (1907) where the Congress had split into two camps — the extremists and the moderates. By the time he returned, he had become the most popular leader of the extremists in South India — galvanising the Swadeshi shipping company, organising the mill workers to strike and conducting a series of nationalist meetings in Tuticorin and Tirunelveli.

On March 12, 1908, he was arrested on charges of sedition and for two days, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin witnessed unprecedented violence, quelled only by the stationing of a punitive police force.

But newspapers had taken note of VOC.

Aurobindo Ghosh, editorialising him in his Bande Mataram (March 27, 1908), with "Well Done, Chidambaram", went so far as to call the dark, short Dravidian, "the first example of an Aryan reborn". Apart from the Madras press, even the Amrita Bazaar Patrika from Kolkata (Calcutta) carried reports of his prosecution every day. Funds were raised for his defence not only in India but also by the Tamils in South Africa. But the draconian sentence of two life imprisonments (even Tilak got only six years) was received with shock and disbelief. After the witch-hunt following Tirunelveli District Collector Ashe's assassination (in 1911) by youths patently inspired by VOC, the congenitally weak Swadeshi movement, with its limited popular base, petered out.

VOC, languishing in prison, was left to fend for himself. His young wife, Meenakshi Ammal followed him — almost single-handedly organising the logistics of his appeals — from the Tirunelveli sub jail to the Coimbatore and Kannur central jails, where he spent his term. In those "pre-Non Cooperation days", when there was no category of political prisoners, he did hard (convict) labour. VOC was even made to work the oil mill, depicted so poignantly in a poem by his friend Subramania Bharati. In prison he continued a clandestine correspondence, maintaining a stream of petitions going into legal niceties and giving evidence against them in a jail outbreak.


V.O. Chidambaram Pillai.

When he stepped out of prison in late December 1912, after a high court appeal had reduced his prison sentence, the huge crowds present on his arrest were conspicuously absent. Probably externed from his native Tirunelveli district, he moved to Chennai with his wife and two young sons. Having been convicted for sedition, he had lost his pleadership sanad, thus depriving him of his livelihood. The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had collapsed, having been liquidated in 1911. His family had lost all its wealth and property in his legal defence, the public subscriptions for his defence fund being too paltry.

* * *

It was at this time that Gandhi arrived in Chennai. A correspondence which began at this juncture between VOC and Gandhi continued for about six months, which is our present concern. We do not know what happened to the enormous mail Gandhi received. But VOC seems to have preserved all these letters, and for good measure, had written his draft replies on Gandhi's letters. So we have his side too. The lines he had scribbled out in his draft letters add to our knowledge — amply rewarding for the task of decipherment.

The first letter, drafted probably a day after Gandhi arrived, addressed Gandhi as "Dear Brother": "I have had the fortune of seeing you and my respected Mrs Gandhi when you came out of the Railway compound the other evening", it said and added, "I want to have a private interview with you at any time convenient to you before you leave this place".

Gandhi replied promptly with a single line on April 20, 1915: "If you kindly call at ... 6 A.M. next Friday, I could give you a few minutes".

Switching over to a more formal "Dear Sir", VOC replied the next day: Underlining the words "a few minutes", he said, "As I am afraid that my conversation with you will take more than the allotted `a few minutes', I need not trouble you with my presence". He excused himself "for having intruded upon your precious time".

It was now Gandhi's turn to take mild offence: "If you do not want to see me I would like to see you myself. Will you kindly call on Friday or Saturday at 6 A.M. and [sic?] give me a few minutes?" He then went on to explain: "Of course you can call any day between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. when I am open to be seen by anybody. But as you wanted a private interview I suggested Friday morning as I suggest some morning or the other for private interviews". (April 21, 1915)

Here came the first poignant moment in the exchange. VOC agreed to meet Gandhi early in the morning but said, "I cannot reach your place before 6:30 a.m."

Reason: "the tram car, the only vehicle by which I can now afford to go to your place, leaves Mylapore after 5:30 in the morning". A man who had bought up two steamships a few years earlier was now unable to take anything more than a tram! Yet VOC went on to add, "I can spend not `a few minutes' but, the whole of my lifetime with the patriots of my country if they wish me to do so. All my time is intended for the services of my country and of its patriots. Only after these two, God is attended to by me".

* * *

Gandhi and VOC did indeed meet. But whether VOC took only a tram or whether they met only for "a few minutes" we will never know. But the correspondence did not end here. It followed the issue Gandhi himself raised in his letter of April 21, 1915.

I would like to know from you whether you received some moneys from me which were collected on your behalf some years ago in South Africa. I was trying to trace some orders which I had thought were sent, but I did not find them. I therefore would like to know from you whether you received the moneys that were handed to me.

VOC replied (April 22, 1915) that neither he nor his wife had received any money. The reference to his wife and the indication by Gandhi to money collected "some years ago" suggest that it may have had to do with the fund raised in South Africa for VOC's defence. (In two waves of migration from India, 1860-1866 and 1874-1911, Tamils had reached South Africa most often as indentured labourers. Even in 1980, Tamils constituted 37 per cent of the population, the largest group among people of Indian origin. (A collection of Bharati's poems, "Matha Manivachagam", had been published in Durban in 1914. Gandhi's links with this segment of the diaspora needs no recounting.) However, despite his impecunious situation, he reassured Gandhi: "But, if you will pardon me, I will say that you need not trouble yourself ... for I am sure that it would have gone to a better purpose".

Gandhi would of course have none of it. "I don't know the names of those who subscribed for you but the money was given to me by a friend on their behalf and I have been always under the impression that it was sent to you".

Now comes the most poignant letter. VOC replied saying that he had presumed from Gandhi's earlier letter that the fund had been spent towards Passive Resistance in South Africa and, therefore, he had asked him not to bother to remit the money especially if it was to be from his funds. But now that Gandhi had made it clear that it was not so:

Ahmedabad, January 15, 1916 _ Gandhi's letter to VOC, whose draft reply is seen below Gandhi's signature.

"I will, in my present condition, be only glad to receive that money ... I have already told you in person that my family and I are supported for the past two years or so by some South African Indians ... Such being the case, there is no reason why I should say that the money intended for me and that is ready to be given to me is not wanted by me. Under the present circumstances if I refuse that amount I will be committing a wrong to myself and my family".

Now that the issue was settled — that Gandhi indeed owed money, and VOC was not averse to receiving it — a series of letters were exchanged from late May 1915 until January 1916. To VOC's apparently long letters, Gandhi replied on cryptic post cards.

On May 28, 1915 Gandhi assured VOC: "I shall now send for the book subscribed in Natal. I don't know the amount nor the names. But I hope to get them". VOC seems to have been in desperate need of money. "Don't you know at least approximately the total amount given to you by your friend? If you know it, can you not send me that amount or a major portion of it now, so that it may be useful to me in my present difficult circumstances? The remainder you may send to me after you get the books", VOC pleaded (May 31, 1915). He also asked for the names of benefactors. In letter after letter he asked for these details.

It is understandable, given VOC's penchant for remembering benefactors by naming his children for them: Vedavalli was named for T. Vedia Pillai who supported him and Subramaniam for C.K. Subramania Mudaliar, who helped him during his prosecution. Even the Englishman E.H. Wallace, who first committed his case to the session's court but was instrumental in getting his sanad back, was remembered in the name of his last son, Wallacewaran!

But Gandhi would only say, "If you will kindly wait a while, you will have both the money and the particulars. If I knew the name of the friend, I should certainly let you know", and asked VOC to write to Mr. Patak at Johannesburg for more details.

Probably to another reminder from VOC, asking if he had heard from South Africa,

Gandhi wrote a rather curt "Not yet, yours M.K. Gandhi" without even a formal word of address (July 23, 1915). But within a month, most certainly to another reminder from VOC, Gandhi wrote with his own hand, in Tamil, saying he had not yet heard from South Africa. (This particular post card is in tatters.)

Gandhi writing in Tamil seems to have completely floored VOC. Dropping the question of money VOC started off right away, "Your card written in Tamil reached me on the due date. I am glad to see that you have written the language without any mistake whatever. If you are able to read and understand Tamil prose and poetical works of ordinary style, I will be glad to send you all my publications" (September 28, 1915).

However, even in December 1915 and January 1916, Gandhi was only writing one-line letters like "I am still awaiting instructions from Natal" to VOC's increasingly desperate and beseeching letters.

VOC's ordeal came to an end at last when, on January 20, 1916, Gandhi wrote from Ahmedabad, "I have now heard from Natal", and that Rs. 347-12-0 was to be remitted to him soon.

The correspondence ends here. VOC was no doubt relieved and delighted. On February 4, 1916, he wrote to a friend, in Tamil, "Rs. 347-12-0 has come from Sriman Gandhi. I have given Rs. 100 to the pressman for casting new types. With the remaining money I have settled all my debts except one of Rs.50. I will need further money only to buy paper".

Of course, VOC had heaved a sigh of relief too early. Never really recovering from the penury caused by his prison life — he tried his hand at selling provisions, worked as a clerk in Coimbatore and for a few years after regaining his pleadership sanad, practised in the Kovilpatti court which by his own admission was only enough to meet his "betel leaves and areca nut expenses". This however did not come much in the way of his public life. As a die-hard supporter of Tilak, he could never countenance Gandhi's leadership. Yet, until his death in 1936, he continued to be active in the labour movement, the national movement and the non brahmin movement. That, however, is a different story.

A. R. Venkatachalapathy is a Tamil writer and historian

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