MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI was born on October 2, 1869, at Porbandar, a small town on the western coast of India, which was then one of the many tiny states in Kathiawar. He was born in middle class family of Vaishya caste. His grandfather had risen to be the Dewan or Prime Minister of Porbandar and was succeeded by his son Karamchand who was the father of Mohandas. Putlibai, Mohandas’s mother, was a saintly character, gentle and devout, and left a deep impress on her son’s mind.
Mohandas went to an elementary school in Porbandar, where he found it difficult to master the multiplication tables. “My intellect must have been sluggish and my memory raw”, he recalled with candour many years later. He was seven when his family moved to Rajkot, another state in Kathiawar, where his father became Dewan. There he attended a primary school and later joined a high school. Though conscientious he was a “mediocre student” and was excessively shy and timid.
While his school record gave no indication of his future greatness, there was one incident which was significant. A British school inspector came to examine the boys and set a spelling test. Mohandas made a mistake which the class teacher noticed. The latter motioned to him to copy the correct spelling from his neighbour’s slate. Mohandas refused to take the hint and was later chided for his “stupidity”.
We can also discover in the little boy a hint of that passion for reforming others which later became so dominant a trait of the Mahatma, though in this case the zeal almost led him astray. Impelled by a desire to reform a friend of his elder brother’s, one Sheikh Mehtab, he cultivated his company and imbibed habits which he had to regret later. This friend convinced him that the British could rule India because they lived on meat which gave them the necessary strength. So Mohandas who came on orthodox vegetarian family took to tasting meat clandestinely, for patriotic reasons. But apart from the inherited vegetarian sentiment which made him feel, after he had once swallowed a piece, as if “a live goat were bleating inside me”, he had to wrestle with the knowledge that such clandestine repasts would have to be hidden from his parents which would entail falsehood on his part. This he was reluctant to do. And so after a few such experiments he gave up the idea, consoling himself with the reflection : “When they are no more and I have found my freedom, I will eat meat openly.”
While he was still in high school, he was married, at the age of thirteen, to Kasturbai who was also of the same age. For a boy of that age marriage meant only a round of feasts, new clothes to wear and a strange and docile companion to play with. But he soon felt the impact of sex which he has described for us with admirable candour. The infinite tenderness and respect which were so marked a characteristic of his attitude in later life to Indian women may have owed something to his personal experience of “the cruel custom of child marriage”, as he called it.