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A visit to Pietermaritzburg station, where Gandhi was pushed off the train in South Africa

A visit to Pietermaritzburg station, where Gandhi was pushed off the train in South Africa

“Well, we’re coming up to the station,” announces tour guide Shiney Bright to the people eagerly awaiting to disembark. It might be unique that a group of Indian travellers wants to see a railway station — of all places. But then, this is Pietermaritzburg.

The platforms of the station are empty — they aren’t expecting any trains anytime soon — but a trip there is bound to make any Indian traveller patriotic. It was at Pietermaritzburg station that a young lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was pushed out of a first-class compartment, thus prompting him to think about race and colour prejudices. This nondescript, not-so-busy station in South Africa is known worldwide today as the ‘Birthplace of Sathyagraha’.

A visit to Pietermaritzburg station, where Gandhi was pushed off the train in South Africa

A night in the cold

The incidents leading up to Gandhi’s ouster from the train are well-detailed in the waiting room of the station, which is also the place where he spent the entire night mulling over prejudice and freedom. The story goes thus: a young Gandhi was travelling to Pretoria for a legal case on the cold night of June 7, 1893, when a white man objected to his presence in a first-class carriage. Gandhi, naturally, refused to move since he had a valid first-class ticket. The train had reached Pietermaritzburg by then, and Gandhi was unceremoniously thrown from his carriage onto the platform.

A visit to Pietermaritzburg station, where Gandhi was pushed off the train in South Africa

The waiting room where he spent the night is today peppered with posters and a computer kiosk presentation that recounts the incident in great detail. “It was winter, and winter in the higher regions of South Africa is severely cold. Maritzburg being at a high altitude, the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered. I began to think of my duty. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial, only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice,” Gandhi writes about that night.

It was a long night for Gandhi, one that would make him think about the situation back in India and mull over what he could do about it.

“I was born in India but was made in South Africa,” commented Gandhi once. It has been 125 years since that night, but the statue and the waiting room in Pietermaritzburg leave Indians teary-eyed to this day.

A visit to Pietermaritzburg station, where Gandhi was pushed off the train in South Africa

Name game

There’s more to Pietermaritzburg than just the Gandhi connection. Today, the beautiful place is home to many people who prefer it to the much-busier environs of Durban or Johannesburg. As it is located at an altitude, it is cooler than the other two cities, and if you’re lucky during your stay here, you might catch a glimpse of the magnificent jacaranda trees in full bloom, a sight to behold.

The name of the place itself has an interesting story behind it, and our tour guide never tires of narrating it. “Two people (Piet Retief and Gert Maritz) had gone to negotiate with the Zulu chief about coming to live here. The two were welcome to a party that was organised for the talks, but were murdered there. Someone had told the Zulus that the White people would come over and take all the land, and that they were evil spirits,” she says. This is said to have happened sometime in the 1830s, and the city was named ‘Pietermaritzburg’, a combination of both their names, in their honour.

Today, on any rainy day, the city resembles a pretty painting that is waiting to be appreciated. It is also a favourite for people from other places, who settle here thanks to the academic environment it provides. “A lot of the children come from Kenya, Uganda, Mauritius and Seychelles because there are a lot of good boarding schools,” says Bright, “They’re looked after well. Pietermaritzburg is very much like old England.”


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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 10:39:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/the-making-of-the-mahatma/article26069462.ece

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