An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
On my sixth birthday, my grandmother gave me a picture-book–the sort of thing one gives to a child on its birthday. I doubt if she ever had an inkling of its future significance for me, but that birthday present sealed my destiny. It depicted dramatic scenes of Indian life, filtered through the sensibilities of the turn of the century. Two pictures in particular, I recall, were of such savage intensity as to sear my tender soul.
One was of a huge traction engine, as it were, crushing men, women and children like stubble beneath its vast wheels. The driver, perched on high like a mahout riding an elephant, surveyed the carnage with a vicious grin. The drawing was supposed to illustrate the annual Jagannatha religious festival at Puri, where now and again some fanatic would, as his personal sacrifice to Vishnu, immolate himself beneath the wheels of the giant images paraded through the streets.
The other picture showed what looked to me like a palace from The Thousand-And-One Nights. It was in fact a splendid tomb, ivory-coloured, domed and pinnacled, glittering like a jewel, housing the mortal remains of the Moghul emperor’s cherished wife, Nour Mahal (“Light of the Palace”), later known as Nour Jahan (“Light of the World”). The caption described how the tomb had been built by the sweated-labour of hundreds of foreigners. When it was completed, so the caption ran, the emperor ordered the eyes of the builders to be gouged out so that they would never be able to construct another edifice like it.
As with all the children’s books of the period, there was a moral. No country could be permitted, of course, to carry on like this without some restraint being exerted by the civilised world. The young reader was invited to heave a sigh of relief for good government and progress, as evinced by the British Empire, before lapping up yet more lurid tales about what these barbarians used to do to each other. And would continue to do, if we weren’t there to stop ‘em.
At the time I never suspected my little book of shamelessly traducing the facts of history. When in years to come I saw with my own eyes the Taj Mahal, the tomb it portrayed, I was so taken with its beauty that I went back at night to photograph it by moonlight. The Tower of London, with far more blood staining its walls, has never quite had that effect on me.
More than once though, on my journeying up and down the length of India as a chota sahib (“little man”)–a commercial traveller–I bitterly regretted that birthday present. But had it not fired my imagination as a child, India might have hosted one less Englishman during the days of the Raj. And who would have been the poorer for that? Not India, but I.
Here’s how it came about. As the reign of King Edward VII drew to its close, I was a very junior clerk in a long-established London store which specialised in tropical equipment. Among its clientele, nobles were two-a-penny. So were judges and barristers (owing to its proximity to the Law Courts), not to mention half the royalty of Europe and the wealthy princes of the East. Its facade proudly bore, not one, but two coats-of-arms proclaiming “by Royal Appointment”. So one might anticipate that, when it was decided to hold the Indian Durbar of the newly-crowned King George V in Delhi, the premises should be invaded by a host of notables due to comprise the royal entourage.
How I envied them: their status, the money they had to spend on equipping their expeditions and the fact that they were bound for that vast mysterious sub-continent: luscious, exciting and–above all–hot. Whilst here was I, chained down to a menial job in the dingy capital of a chilly, foggy island: not all that vast and not, to my mind, particularly mysterious.
But, all unannounced, a miracle was about to happen.
One dull day the following summer, the head of a textile house in the City, who was in the habit of calling weekly for orders, happened to be speaking to the son of the Chief rather more loudly than usual (which was loud enough at the best of times). The Chief, a bearded old man in a frock coat and silk hat, stood not far away, his piercing blue eyes fixed on the door to the street so as not to miss any customers worthy of recognition. Although he was not taking part in the braying conversation, it was he who quietly interjected the remark that launched me on my travels.
“I wish I had a young man to fill that Bombay appointment,” he said, as if to himself. “He could be extremely useful to us later on.”
Bombay appointment? Young man? That described me! I was seventeen after all. If that seemed to cast me more as a boy than a man, well–I wasn’t a mere stripling straight from school. I had worked for the firm for over two years.
“Never mind,” I heard the textile chief say, as though to dismiss the subject once and for all. “I expect some chap in the West End will jump at the chance when he gets to hear of it.”
I watched as he took his leave and made for the door. On an impulse I moved to catch him up, almost running as I did so.
He was just about to step into his victoria. “Excuse me, sir …” I stuttered, touching his arm to draw his attention. “I–I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying to Mr Charles…”
It then struck me that he might have been perfectly aware of how stentorian a voice he had–in which case it hadn’t at all been the right thing to say.
His head jerked round to regard me crossly. “Oh, and what was that?”
“About the Bombay appointment, sir.”
“Well? What of it? Extremely rude of you to have been listening. Do you generally eavesdrop on other people’s conversations?”
I flushed. “N–no, sir. But I would love to go abroad some day.”
He leaned forward to peer into my face. “How old are you?” He put the question as though expecting to be told a lie. “Just out of school, by the look of you.”
“Oh no, sir,” I assured him as he wrapped the rug around himself. “I shall be eighteen in a few weeks.”
He threw back his head to laugh with such vehemence that his silk hat toppled off. “A mere boy, eh?”
“No, sir. I’ve been working for three years.”
“It’s quite out of the question,” he shouted, motioning the coachman to move off. “They want a man in his twenties.”
He shook the pommel of his cane at me. “Let me give you a word of advice. Next time you are near Mr Charles’ office, you’d do well to put cotton wool in your ears.”
to be continued…