The year was 1888 and 18-year-old Mohandas Gandhi had been told by helpful friends that it would be easier to get a law degree in London than in India. The course would take only three years as against five in Bombay, which was an attractive thought for a boy who hadn’t particularly enjoyed school so far.
Unsurprisingly, his family disagreed. Not only would it be expensive, but he might get tempted to drink wine, befriend women, and eat meat. But Mohandas was stubborn. Once he had decided to go to the country that ruled India, one he imagined to be populated by philosophers and poets, nothing could stop him.
Despite his eagerness, he remained painfully shy during the three-week passage, barely speaking to the Englishmen on board and mostly hanging out with two other Indian travellers. Rather than having meals in the ship’s dining hall, he paid an Indian crew member to cook him rice and dal.
Prior to the trip he got himself a white flannel suit tailor-made. When the ship docked, Mohandas put it on. Having observed the British in India, he imagined that white was in fashion. But as soon as he stepped ashore he realised his mistake, for in autumn no Englishman wore white. As he took his first steps on English soil, he felt acutely embarrassed at being dressed so out of season.
The London he arrived in was the undisputed world capital. At six million, its population was more than that of New York and Paris put together. But it wasn’t just a city of poets and philosophers, of empire and education.
It was a stinking place— people reared pigs in their homes and garbage was dumped straight into the Thames. There were beggars, pickpockets, robbers, and Jack the Ripper was making headlines. As a law student, Mohandas presumably read the Illustrated Police News. It dedicated the front page of an October 1888 issue to the ghastly murder of a prostitute. He would also have heard the newsboys call out: “Another ’orrible murdah! Disgustin’ details…!”
Map in hand, and eager to travel back in time to those exciting days, I decided to trace his life in London. In volume one of his collected works, I had found a travel guide that he had written for Indians wishing to visit the British capital. And I suddenly got this quirky idea of checking what was left of that London which he saw, and fell in love with, at the end of the 1880s. It turned out to be a fascinating journey back in time.
That September day, when he first arrived, he went along with his Indian co-passengers into town. They had significantly higher travel budgets, while Mohandas’ brother had had to take a big loan to finance his trip. Nevertheless, he joined them in staying at one of London’s first luxury hotels, The Victoria, which had electric lights and other mod cons. It was in the posh Northumberland Avenue and I go looking for it just off Trafalgar Square with its statue of Lord Nelson. At first I can’t find any trace of it, but then I figure out that it’s been converted into what is now The Grand (www.thegrandattrafalgarsquare.com). Metro: Charing Cross.
After checking in, Mohandas was shown to a small chamber which he thought was a waiting room. But suddenly the chamber started moving up. An elevator! Initially, he loved it all and wrote: “When I first saw my room in the Victoria Hotel, I thought I could pass a lifetime in that room.” But after he did the math, he realised that his money was going to run out soon. Unfortunately, it was a weekend and he had to wait until Monday before his luggage arrived from the harbour, so he could check out. The hotel is well above my shoestring budget too, so I just peek at it from the outside and imagine him taking a first Sunday stroll in the square in his unfashionable flannel suit. Like Gandhi, I then lodge with an Indian friend in a suburb.
Through a compatriot who was also studying in London, he soon found himself a boarding room with an Anglo-Indian widow at 20 Barons Court in West Kensington and stayed there until the spring of 1889. After a bit of walking, I locate the white four-storeyed Victorian terraced house, which now has a heritage plaque put up on the wall by the London Council, proclaiming, “Mahatma Gandhi lived here as a law student”. It is a neat area and, coincidentally, just around the corner is the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (www.bhavan.net) for a dose of Indianness. Although it’s some distance from downtown, there’s the metro. In the 1880s, noisy steam engines passed 20 feet away from the back of the house. The tube from Heathrow follows the same route. Metro: Barons Court or West Kensington.
“It will be readily admitted that, though Indians have been going to and returning from England for the last twenty years and more, no attempt has yet been made at writing a guide like this,” wrote Mohandas in his Guide to London (1893). As for any traveller in a foreign country, food was a concern and the big question was whether one could survive there as a vegetarian. Or must one eat greasy toad-in-the-hole and vinegary fish-and-chips? He notes: “The writer, therefore, of the following pages proposes to discover the mystery and lay bare the movements of Indians in England.”
The facts for his guidebook were compiled through trial and error. For instance, shortly after his arrival, Mohandas turned 19 and the event was probably the cause of the fancy dinner at the Holborn Restaurant, where he immediately embarrassed his friends by demanding to know whether the starter contained non-vegetarian ingredients. They told him to follow local customs and eat what was offered. Berated, Mohandas hastily left the restaurant and walked the streets that night, sulking.
A kind of settling of scores took place three years later when Mohandas triumphantly hosted his farewell dinner at the same restaurant. Inviting all his friends, he booked private dining room number 19 (the Holborn was huge) and got the kitchen to prepare a special vegetarian feast—the first of its kind in the history of the restaurant. He also hired an orchestra to provide light entertainment, but due to his extreme shyness he was unable to deliver the comical speech with which he was planning to tickle his friends’ ribs. On later visits to London, he often returned to eat at the Holborn, suggesting a sense of nostalgia. I go and look for the restaurant at the corner of Holborn and Kingsway, and find that it was, sadly, demolished in the 1950s and has now been replaced by a Sainsbury’s supermarket. While we’re on the subject, it’s interesting that it sells salads and pre-packed vegetarian lunches of many different cuisines—proving how British food habits have improved over the years. I pick up something Asian and eat it in a nearby park. Metro: Holborn.
Gandhi’s second restaurant visit was a far happier experience than the first. Although his landlady knew India and understood vegetarianism, the grub at her house was mostly stewed cabbage and boiled spinach, and there was only so much of it that he could digest. But on Monday, 22 October, 1888, he chanced upon Central Vegetarian Restaurant in 16 St. Bride Street and ate his first satisfying meal since arriving in England. On the menu that momentous day was pea soup, macaroni pudding, and apple tart. Besides, the restaurant was adjacent to the London Vegetarian Society, of which Mohandas later became a board member. But as I walk about in the London drizzle, up and down the short street, I find no traces of either. I later discover that the building had been bombed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Still, this significant spot is easily visited in the city centre, just off Farringdon Street, and the council is planning to mark it with a blue heritage plaque so there will soon be something to gawk at. Metro: St Paul’s Cathedral.
Once he found his feet among like-minded folks, the English vegetarian movement proved as essential and edifying an experience as studying law. It was a new fad and people met up in London’s vegetarian eateries not only to eat, but to debate and discuss reforms. Two other favourite haunts of his were Porridge Bowl (278 High Holborn) and Waverley (26 Borough Street). At the latter, Mohandas lectured on Indian food habits to the congregated vegetarians. He also started writing in journals such as the Vegetarian, which he thought that Indians should read and subscribe to, “not especially as mental food, not for the sake of the information given by it, not for the high-class intellectual matter contained in it, though these are by no means of an inferior quality, but for encouraging a movement every indian should have at heart”. This journal appears to have laid the foundation for his later interest in the print medium as a tool for spreading ideas.
Compared to 1888, London today has far more Indian restaurants—probably more than any city outside India. At least six are named “Gandhi” and I find that even the average pub dishes up a decent curry at an affordable price. Actually, in those days too, there were a few Indian restaurants around: the Hindoostane Coffee House was probably London’s first curry canteen, opening in Portman Square in 1810. But Mohandas makes no mention of having patronised these.
My next stop is not far from St. Bride Street and thankfully here the target of sightseeing remains intact, more or less exactly the way it was when Mohandas saw it. The Inner Temple, the most venerable among the four Inns of Court, is where he took his law degree. The complex is situated right between Fleet Street and the Thames. Metro: Temple.
Being so hoary and hallowed, even the streetlights around the Inner Temple are made of cast iron, which is why the area is in demand among filmmakers who need authentic 19th-century environs. There are tourists all over the place, mostly because of the Tom Hanks-starrer The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s bestseller; one of the key scenes took place at the Temple Church.
On studying in England, Mohandas wrote, “The education received in these universities is quite different from that received in the Indian universities. They are not so exacting as our universities here. Again, in India generally it is all work which, as is said, ‘with no play makes Jack a dull boy.’”
He became a popular tablemate at the dinners that were part of his course. Students had to eat 72 formal suppers in all and because he didn’t touch the wine, the other three at his table got an extra half-bottle to share. In winter he spent a lot of time in the library because his boarding room was cold and heating expensive. Thanks to this, he did pretty well in his studies. Further, one of the pleasures of being in England was to read the newspapers with their unusually high standards of reporting and commenting. Mohandas quickly learnt that a gentleman kept himself abreast of current events. Even if he had never bothered to read papers in India, he now spent a daily hour immersed in the Daily Telegraph and Pall Mall Gazette. He followed the debates surrounding Oscar Wilde and would have come across names like John Ruskin who was a frequent contributor and whose thinking influenced him greatly. Another thing to do in London is to go and listen to the many public lectures by famous speakers. While I go for the ex-Monty-Python member, comedian and writer Michael Palin’s talk about art in a gallery, Mohandas liked to visit the churches to listen to prominent preachers. One of his favourite halls was the City Temple, which can still be found at the corner of Holborn and Farringdon Streets. Metro: Farringdon.
Mohandas suggests in Guide to London that watching a play once a month is a good habit, as the theatres “are a national institution in England and, as some suppose, a seat of education and amusement combined. Moreover, they portray the modern habits and customs of England. No one would return to India without visiting the theatres.”
His favourite star was Ellen Terry, who specialised in Shakespeare’s great women characters. During those years she was doing Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum (www.lyceum-theatre.co.uk) on Wellington Street. The manager of the theatre at that same time was Bram Stoker, who was about to start writing his highly non-vegetarian bestseller Dracula, a book that Mohandas would probably not have enjoyed. Since 1999, this theatre has been running The Lion King, a Disney production. Metro: Covent Garden.
Furthermore, Mohandas took dance classes, tried to learn to play the violin, and studied French, the European language of refinement. He even went to Paris as a tourist to see the newly built Eiffel Tower, although he liked the city’s cathedrals more.
It is interesting to note that at the time of his departure from England in 1891, he was considering a literary career. His early writings are witty, such as the travel story he wrote on his journey back home to India. And then in 1893, he ambitiously took it upon himself to write the Guide to London, an Indian traveller’s survival guide filled with practical advice about how to plan your studies, save on money, and prepare your own food in your rented room. It was never published in his lifetime but would have been privately circulated. It can now be found in the first volume of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.
Another way to save money was to avoid public transport and Mohandas walked pretty much everywhere—the cool climate made it pleasant to stroll in the many parks. Countrymen of his would later recall spotting the young dandy Mohandas gallivanting in Piccadilly Square dressed in a top hat and cravat.
However, if you see Gandhi in London today, it will most likely be in Tavistock Square just north of the British Museum. There’s a beautiful statue of the leader in his loincloth. It’s a popular place for people to leave scribbled notes, messages about peace on earth, or just light a candle. Metro: Russell Square.
1906 On official business, and as a prominent lawyer, he checked into Hotel Cecil for a few months. It lay on the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge. There are no traces left of it, but one might presume that he took his morning strolls around the 3,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk on the embankment known as Cleopatra’s Needle, one of those historical objects that colonial looting brought to town. He met Winston Churchill for the first time; Churchill was then working in the colonial office. Metro: Charing Cross.
1909 For some time Gandhi had an office, The South Africa British India Committee, at 28 Queen Anne Chambers, which is within walking distance from the parliament as well as Buckingham Palace. Gandhi himself stayed nearby in room 76 at the fancy Westminster Palace Hotel, 4 Victoria Street (now demolished). But you can still find the building that housed his office on Broadway near the corner of Tothill Street, now called Queen Anne’s business centre. Metro: St. James Park.
1914 On Gandhi’s next-to-last visit, a reception was held in his honour at the aforementioned Hotel Cecil, attended by celebrities such as the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, the poet Sarojini Naidu, and Pakistan’s founder-to-be Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
1931 Gandhi was the representative of the Indian National Congress at the Round Table held in order to discuss the how and when of Indian self-government. The conference took place at St. James Palace, across the street from Buckingham Palace, and as I go to check it out I’m suddenly face to face with Prince Charles driving his expensive car out through the gates, with Camilla in the passenger seat next to him. This is the royal family’s official residence today, so tourists aren’t allowed inside. During his last visit, Gandhi was invited to have tea with King George at Buckingham Palace. Metro: St. James Park.
This time Gandhi stayed in the slummy East End, where his friend Muriel Lester ran a community welfare centre. The red brick building with ivy on its walls is called Kingsley Hall and you’ll notice another of those round blue heritage plaques by the entrance. It remains perhaps the only one of Gandhi’s London accommodations that can be visited today (by appointment only). His room has been preserved and the building now houses the headquarters of the Gandhi Foundation (www.gandhifoundation.org). You will find it in a slightly seedy neighbourhood at 21 Powis Street. Metro: Bromley-by-Bow.
Appeared in the June 2014 issue as “Back In Time”. Updated in September 2017.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).