When Mahatma Gandhi was studying law at the University College of London (UCL), it is said that Peters, his English professor, disliked him intensely and frequently displayed prejudice and animosity towards him. One day, Peters was having lunch at the University dining room and Gandhi came along with his tray and sat down next to the professor. The professor chided, “Mr. Gandhi, you do not understand. A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat.” Gandhi looked at him as a parent would a rude child and calmly replied, “Do not worry professor. I’ll fly away,” and he got up and sat at another table.

On another occasion, Peters, it is reported, asked Gandhi the following question. “Mr Gandhi, if you were walking down the street and found a package, and within was a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?”

Without hesitation, Gandhi responded, “The one with the money, of course.”

Peters, smiling sarcastically said, “I, in your place, would have taken the wisdom.”

Upon which, Gandhi shrugged indifferently and responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”

So great was Peters’ resentment of Gandhi that he once wrote on Gandhi’s exam sheet the word “idiot” and returned it to Gandhi. Gandhi took the paper and sat down at his desk. A few minutes later he got up, went to the professor, and said in a dignified and polite tone, “Mr. Peters, you signed the sheet, but did not give me a grade.”

The above story, written by Liz Burton (not her real name), was emailed to me by one of my friends, who must have felt as warm and fuzzy as I did after reading it.

However, the story made me curious. After a quarter century of all sorts of internet urban legends, folklores and trojans trying to pose as “click me” stories, you can’t blame me for suspecting whether this story belonged to one of those categories.

These days verifying an urban legend on the internet is, of course, as easy as creating one. There are numerous websites (such as www.snopes.com), which dutifully expose all urban legends, and some even explore the origins of these stories.

So imagine my surprise when all my quick searches on this story came back empty-handed except for the meme personal blogs that simply reprinted it. This made me even more curious.

I want to clarify here that I have no particular interest in Gandhi’s life or works. I have as much reverence for him as any other Indian, but I cannot say that I’m a Gandhi-enthusiast, much less a Gandhian.

Perhaps it was my failure to find the authenticity of the story that intrigued me.

The story refers to the University College of London. (The real name is University College London—no “of” in the name.) UCL is a familiar name in the academic world. From William Ramsey (who discovered helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon) to Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame)—UCL has been associated with celebrities and stars. Started in 1826, UCL is still is a venerable institution in London.

A quick search on Wikipedia and other sources yielded the fact that Gandhi was in UCL from 1888—1899. Is it possible that UCL may have retained some documents and evidence about its famous alumnus?

I contacted David Price, Vice-Provost of Research at UCL. I introduced myself as a researcher (checking out the authenticity of an internet-born story is research, right?). He extended his help to me and hooked me up with Paul Ayris, CEO of UCL Press and Chief Library Officer of UCL History.

It turned out there is very little evidence of Gandhi’s ties to UCL.

After a century only three of them have survived.

(i) His student record card: This records his name as “Mahatma Karamchand GANDHI,” later amended to “Mohandas.” Since Rabindranath Tagore called Gandhi “Mahatma” only in 1915, evidently, this card was not written at the time Gandhi was acutally in London. To seal this argument, two addresses are given on the card, for 1927 and 1939, well after Gandhi left London.

(b) Two entries in the Professors’ Fees Book for 1888-1889: Here Gandhi is listed under Henry Morley for classes in English.

(c) An entry in the calendar for 1889-90 (which lists the students for the previous year): This gives his name as “Gaudhi.”

These facts are laid out in two articles. The first appeared in the Camden New Journal in September 2009, the other is an item by Andrew Lewis in the UCL Laws Newsletter for their Summer 2002 issue. Lewis points out that Gandhi’s name does not appear in any surviving class registers, and that the study of law at the university in the 1880s did little to advance a professional legal career in England. (In training administrators for the Empire, on the other hand, it was seen as essential.) Lewis concludes that Gandhi could well have arrived with the intention of studying for his degree here, but soon left to study for the Bar at Gray’s Inn, (a place where prospective law practitioners used to go at that time) presumably once he realized this was where he needed to be in order to qualify.

There is no known record of him studying under any Professor Peters at all, much less an exam paper with the word “idiot” scrawled on it. Thus another urban legend is busted!

I have no less reverence for Gandhi now after knowing the story is utterly false than when I started. If anything, I feel proud to have uncovered the truth about it. The Supreme Experimenter with Truth would probably have liked it this way.

Now who is this “Liz Burton” credited with writing this? I do not mention her real name here fearing that will give her more publicity. But she is not shy of publicity. This story turned out to be a post on her klout.com account (she might have copied it from elsewhere) where she introduces herself as “A delightfully clever Online Marketer, Website Developer, Graphic Designer, Social Media Addict, Entrepreneur, Blogger, Affiliate, Consultant, New Media Junkie!” So there.

There is one other thing I discovered while looking into UCL’s history that made me proud too. In its entire history of 188 years, UCL has several Nobel Laureates in physics, chemistry and so on, but only one in literature. And that person has an Indian connection. Who was that person? I leave it for your own research.

Swapnajit Mitra searches for humor in all places, sometimes with not-so-funny consequences. His current search area is Santa Clara, CA.

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