This scene is thought to be the turning point in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life. It took place on June 7, 1893 on a train trip from Durban to Pretoria when Gandhi was told that he, an Indian, could not travel in a first-class compartment reserved for whites and was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg Station.
With no other option, he ends up sleeping in the waiting room of the station that cold winter night, debating whether he should return to India, fight for his rights or just ignore the situation and carry on with his journey.
The morning after that cold winter’s night, when Gandhi sat on the station’s waiting room bench, he decided to let the authorities know in no uncertain terms how he felt about the injustice he had experienced.
Thus began a new life journey for the young man, at only 24, one that would involve following the truth in his heart, while keeping compassion and non-violence as pillars in his fight for justice.
Since that March evening in 2002 when I learnt about this seminal event in Gandhi’s life through the wonderful acting of slum children on the stage in New Jersey, my interaction with Gandhi’s spirit, message, and life journey has increased and deepened.
Five years later, I decided to volunteer at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad for six months with the same NGO I met in New Jersey. Then, at the end of 2009, inspired by Gandhi’s saying “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, I decided to close all my musical and business ventures and become a full-time volunteer at the ashram. Through selfless service, our large family of volunteers continues to weave Gandhi’s spirit into our daily lives: through the daily morning prayers drawn from all religions, small acts of love, service to the poor, spiritual practices, meditation and much more.
Since moving to this ashram, I’ve been blessed to be able to visit all the important places in Gandhi’s life (his birthplace, school in Rajkot, apartment in London, home in Mumbai, his two major ashrams in India (Sabarmati and Seva Gram), one of the jails he was in, and the place of his assassination in New Delhi.
Although I had been to South Africa twice before this most recent trip, I never had a chance to get to
KwaZulu-Natal due to scheduling. So I had long dreamed of visiting the railway station that had changed Gandhi’s life forever and shifted human history.
Well, the blessings finally came. In this last month, I was able to visit both the Phoenix settlement, spending some quality time with Ela Gandhi (his granddaughter) and making it to the Pietermaritzburg station.
But when I heard about the schedule for our visit to the station, I realised I would not have enough time there. I wanted at least an hour to myself in silence in the waiting room where Gandhi spent that cold winter’s night on June 7, 1893.
However, our schedule did not allow me that hour. So I requested that a friend, Krishen Moodley, who organised my visit, ask David Gangen, the chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Memorial Committee, if I could spend the night at the station to try to relive a small part of what Gandhi went through.
Gangen responded with great support and arranged for me to sleep there alone for a night.
Although there were safety concerns, as the station is not in a safe part of town, I received the blessing to go ahead with the experiment.
After meeting Gangen, Nishwan and the security guard, we worked out a safety protocol for the night and then said our goodbyes.
The first thing I did was just sit down and absorb the silence inside myself and try to embrace the fact that this was happening, that I was actually sitting in the same room where Gandhi slept 124 years ago.
Then I decided to re-enact the situation to the best of my ability. It was 10pm by then (Gandhi was thrown off the train at about 9pm). I walked to the edge of the platform where the train tracks were and found the memorial plaque indicating this was where Gandhi was thrown off.
After looking around to see if I was alone, I threw myself onto the platform. Trying to feel my body hit the ground, I lay there for a few seconds in silence before slowly looking up and finally getting back on my feet. Looking around again, I pretended to pick up the luggage – as Gandhi had to do to reclaim his luggage which was thrown off the train after him.
Then I slowly made my way to the waiting room, where I spent the rest of the night. I meditated for about 40 minutes, then tried to rest for a while. Loud music and constant noise didn’t allow for any peaceful rest.
Initially I thought I should sleep without blankets, just on the bench, but eventually I accepted the use of a blanket and a hat in the 5°C weather while sleeping on the wooden bench.
Because I had three music events the next day, I also agreed it would be good to try to get a little rest. At 5am I got up to meditate again, until my dear friends picked me up.
I felt mesmerised by having had the opportunity to spend the night like this, simply in the waiting room at the Pietermaritzburg station, a station I had dreamed of visiting after learning of Gandhi’s story.
What a contrast from the four-star hotel I slept in the next night.
I always like to think that my music tours are more like pilgrimages, and it is experiences like this which truly make it a pilgrimage and give me an opportunity to go within, to the depths of my soul.
Looking back, the entire experience for me at the Pietermaritzburg Station was a huge blessing. Although no overwhelming realisation or awakening came out of the actual experience, it was another deep seed planted in my heart and life.
To feel the blessings of Gandhi’s journey in my heart that night gave my soul further fuel to keep walking, keep connecting to my truth, keep being a small instrument of good.
I will keep following my heart for guidance, as Gandhi did at this train station many years ago, and then let the journey unfold as it may.
Patel is a former
businessman and musician from Los Angeles who gave up these careers to become a volunteer at the Gandhi ashram in
Ahmedabad, India, where he works with slum children.
He was recently in
KwaZulu-Natal to visit the
Gandhi settlement and the Pietermaritzburg railway
station where Gandhi was thrown off a train.
During his visit, he delighted many with his rap poetry and songs that have a strong social message. In this article he recounts how he spent a night at the station sleeping on the bench where Gandhi slept 124 years ago.