An extract from:

Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark

ISBN 978-1-898728-11-5

The victoria jerked forward and he was gone.  I wished then I had lied about my age.  Surely there was something I could do to press my case.

It occurred to me that my father, who was in the same line of business, might possibly be acquainted with the textile agent.  I therefore set about questioning him in as off-handed a manner as I could affect.  To my astonishment he knew all about the job being available.

“Trouble is, boy, the money’s so poor.  Nobody wants it.”

I said I understood and pretended to let the matter drop.  But later on that night, as father was preparing to retire to bed, I plucked up courage to tax him with it once again.

“Look, dad,” I burst out.  “I suppose I’d be too young for that Bombay job…?”

“Much too young.”  He went to bed without another word.

I was annoyed.  I felt I could guess why he considered me too young.  I used to look upon him as a rather grey character.  He neither drank nor smoked and was a regular churchgoer.  He had married at nineteen and now had seven children (he was to have thirteen before he died at the age of forty-nine).

But, astonishingly, he didn’t forget our brief talk.  The following Friday I happened to notice Mr Oram, the textile agent, stopping for a moment to chat in his booming voice to our commissionaire.  My eyes were glued upon him as he went past my tiny desk, but he strode by as if I didn’t exist.  Which seemed to be the last I would ever hear of the matter.  Or so I thought, as I sat down at the staff lunch table.

The commissionaire invariably carved the joint and today he put down a heaped plate in front of me.  As he did so he whispered in my ear, “Mr Oram told me to tell you he’s had a letter from your pa.  He’s written to Bombay to get an answer to some questions, but he doesn’t want to raise your hopes too soon.  If anything comes of it, you’ll hear at home quick enough.”

Several weeks passed by without my hearing a thing.  It was in the evening before the start of the college summer holidays.  My father had just finished reading a letter at table for the second time, when he passed it over to my mother with the remark, “I don’t like it.  Too risky.  I wonder what you make of it?”

Mother read the letter slowly.  Then she passed it back in silence.

Father prompted her.  “A pretty awful place for a boy on his own, I’d say.”

“That depends, doesn’t it…?”  She studied my face closely.

“Depends on what, dear?  Three years–what would he be like by then?  Thoroughly depraved, no doubt.  Never going to church–drinking, smoking and all that…”

“Well–Leicester Square’s not a very nice place either…”  Mother wasn’t easily put off.

I could hold my quivering tongue no longer.  “Are you talking about Bombay?”

Father retorted, “It’s you we’re worried about, more than the town itself…”

I was on the point of asking why he had written to Mr Oram in the first place, if he was going to oppose my going, but I thought better of it.  I was gleefully confident.  If the firm was absolutely stuck for an assistant in Bombay, some way would surely have been found of overcoming my father’s misgivings.  Which eventually they seemed to have been.  Of course I gave him absolutely no credit for his complicity in the initiative.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, I was the proud recipient, a week after my eighteenth birthday, of a letter appointing me to the staff of Gore & Co (Merchants and Retailers), Fort, Bombay, India.  I wildly imagined the firm as the successor to the celebrated East India Company, whose exploits I had so eagerly studied in my childhood.  The illustrious Sir Robert Clive and I were about to become birds of a feather.

Mr Haddon, a big Irishman of forty-five, exhibited a touchingly parental interest in my welfare at the interview, even though that interest didn’t subsequently manifest itself.  Naturally he would see to it that I came to no harm in India, either physically or morally.  After all, Bombay was a civilised place.  He and his wife (they had no children) would be happy to care for me as a son.  The contract was only for three years, with passage paid both ways, plus four-and-a-half months’ paid leave at the end of it, so I would be no more than twenty-one when it was over, young enough to change my pattern of life without too much pain if that’s what I fancied.  So, a few weeks later, off I went.

With a ticket costing £41 for a second-class passage on the P&O mailboat, some new clothes and a fiver in my pocket for incidental expenses, I felt on top of the world.  In the preceding weeks any natural modesty I may once have possessed must have completely deserted me, for my chums, brothers and sisters evinced no sign of regret when it came time to say goodbye.

Father showed a great deal more concern, taking the afternoon off to accompany mother on the boat-train to Tilbury.  As the ship lay in mid-stream he actually took the launch to board her and inspect my berth.  It was a shared cabin and I had the lower bunk.  Of my companion on the voyage there was no sign, nor as yet any indication of who he might be.  Which was just as well as it turned out, otherwise father would have straightaway hauled me ashore.

My tattered suitcase was pushed under the bunk.  My only other luggage was father’s old trunk, dug out of the attic to take a change of clothes, school-prize books, my postcard album and other odds and ends which at the time I deemed precious.  The most cherished item, carefully packed, was my certificate from the College of Preceptors, showing that three years earlier I had passed out with honours (and distinctions in several subjects).  I valued it because it marked the apogee of my scanty education.  For the moment its fate, and that of my other treasures, lay in the anonymous hands of the crew who were seeing the trunk down to the hold.

Presently the ship’s horn blew its pounding blast and the visitors were called off.  Mother gave me a parting hug, unable to hold back tears.  I was so absorbed in the scenes of life around me, the emotional crowds, the baggage cranes, the smart uniforms of the officers, the lascar crew, that I failed to exhibit the slightest sorrow at bidding my parents au revoir (as in due course I was pointedly reminded).  In no time at all the launches were away and the leviathan steamer, which was to be home to me for the next three weeks, moved gradually downstream, shedding the Port of London from her streamlined form like discarding a tattered grey cloak.

to be continued…