Harnamsingh was a Sikh, a Keshadhari, which means that he would not cut his hairs and had to tie them above the head like ancient sages. It was therefore impossible for him to wear a cap of any kind. He had to wear a turban. Even though he wore a collar, necktie etc like a European he wore turban also. In those days (i.e. by 1906) very few Sikhs had travelled abroad, therefore he presented a sight of some clumsiness, or an eccentric. Therefore, to the Europeans, especially to their women and children, a man with a turban was a sight of fun. It used to make them laugh.
At times, our group of Indian youth used to go on the deck to enjoy fresh air. Harnamsingh, who shared a cabin with me also used to join us. Europeans pointed at his turban and laughed. At first, we ignored them. But one day their children pointed to the turban and said, ‘ what a funny hat ’ and came very close to him. Their parents, instead of controlling the children, also began to laugh.
Harnamsingh moved on, Mr Etiquette pushed a white boy aside. As a result, the rest of the children went away and their parents too did not make a fuss. But after we returned to our cabin, Mr Etiquette said to me, ‘ Savarkar, tell Harnamsingh not to wear the turban. Why should we dress that makes the Europeans laugh at us and ridicule our behaviour? Though they laughed at Harnamsingh, I felt that it was an insult to all of us. In future, if he insists on wearing the turban, I will not go on the deck.’
I reacted, “ My friend, I will never tell Harnamsingh to abandon the turban. Some of our customs are out of date and harmful. I am ahead of all of you in proposing their abandonment. I am far more reformist when it comes to that. However, it is sheer cowardice to abandon certain customs merely because the Europeans laugh at them. Apart from convenience, if we look at it aesthetically, our turbans are far more appealing and colourful than the European hats, which look like dustbins. We should use hats when they are suitable for the occasion. Moreover, wearing a turban is essential to the Sikh way of life. To stop wearing it, simply because Europeans laugh at it, is a national insult to us. I say, ‘ Why don’t WE ALL wear turbans and go on the deck for a walk. When Europeans see that we are all united, their ridicule will subside.”
Mr Etiquette sprung up and said, “ You said the right thing. From tomorrow, I too will wear a turban and accompany Harnamsingh.” Thus I had been successful in kindling his self-respect.
I used to argue in many ways with Indian youth, who were suffering from inferiority complex and try to teach them self-respect. I led this course of action to change their outlook, to make them aware of current politics and to induce them to join the Indian freedom struggle. In short, I used to say, “ Today, the English are ruling over us. We therefore have to learn their habits in detail. And while doing that, if we make mistakes, we feel so shy and guilty. I also used to feel the same way. But that is wrong. When we were masters in our land and Europeans came to our land for trade, they too had to learn our customs and manners, they too made silly mistakes and our forefathers too laughed at them in those days.”
“ Today, in the streets of London, Indians are teased as blackies. But we must remember that when the English came to Pune in the days of Maratha Peshwas, in the 18th and 19th century they too were called, ‘Red faced’ (topiwale ingraj). The English could not walk without shoes. But in our courts they had to remove their shoes and walk barefoot. They must have felt very awkward indeed. They were also not used to sitting on the floor, as it was not done in England due to cold climate there. But they had to sit cross-legged in our courts and must have felt very uncomfortable in sitting that way. No doubt, our forefathers must have laughed at them too. That is natural human reaction.”
“ There are interesting stories of experiences of the English in the 18th century. A Maratha Sardar (Knight) invited an officer of the East India Company for dinner. But the seating arrangement was in Indian style, i.e. no tables or chairs, no knifes and forks. With great difficulty, the English officer sat down. He was not sure which item of food, he should start with. So, he picked up karanjee, which looked like a cake. It had desiccated coconut inside. He was surprised and said, “ How come coconut pieces went inside? ” There was a great laughter among the participants.”
“ Such events happen all the time, when people of two different cultures meet. However, there is nothing to be ashamed of them. It is all to be taken as simple fun.”
“ But these English men and women do not laugh at us merely as a matter of fun. They laugh out of arrogance and to despise us. They thereby imply that they are ruling over us, and therefore all their customs and traditions are superior to ours. That lies behind their laughter. ”
“ Our own people who believe that if we learn the manners and customs of the English, they will respect and consider us worthy of political reforms should think a little. Look at the thousands of Indian Christians. They have adopted the customs and manners of the English, including their religion. Of course they cannot change their colour. But have they been given any political rights? None whatsoever!! ”
“ Consider the Irish. They do not even have problem of colour (they are white like English). Why are they not granted the Home Rule in their affairs? Why are the English ruling over them with fixed bayonets? So, my friends, adoption of customs and manners of the English is not the criterion for the political advancement. ”
“ Now look at the Japanese. They inflicted a smashing defeat on the Russian Navy in 1904/05. And immediately these flat nosed, short fellows became worthy of friendship of the English. Customs and manners are of secondary or even of tertiary importance!! ”
On board the ship ‘s.s. Persia’, I met some young Indian students. No matter what the topic of discussion with them was, I always tried to connect it to the Indian freedom struggle, as can be seen from the above example. Thus, the youth were awakening to the Indian politics and so political debates began to take place. At first, most of them were either uninformed or were not interested in the subject. Some even said that it was one of the conditions for their scholarships that they must not take part in any political movement
I used to say:- ‘ Fair enough. You cannot take part in political movements, but that does not prevent you from taking part in political discussions. So, why not join in?’ How such small beginnings eventually led them to join in the freedom struggle is explained later.”