An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
At the foot of the gangway a man approached me without hesitation–my youthful appearance must have been a giveaway. He wore a cream shantung suit and white cork topi and his face was thin and very bronzed.
“Nida?” he said, smiling broadly.
“Mr Robbins!” We shook hands.
“Welcome to India! I hope you’ve had a pleasant trip.”
“Glorious, thanks,” I said, putting aside my financial miseries for now.
After making inquiries about my trunk in the hold, Mr Robbins hailed a cab. It was an open victoria–a gharry he called it. He took my suitcase and we pulled out of the dock entrance and along cobbled streets scored by shining tramlines to the Esplanade. We stopped outside a modern stone building on three floors. I had to stand there waiting a full minute while Robbins haggled with the driver over the fare.
Then we entered and began a round of introductions. First came Mr Colvin, the junior partner. He was a man of 35-40 years. Someone, to judge from his protruding stomach, who took no exercise. Then I was introduced to the rest of the staff, two Europeans and a host of native Indians. Mr Haddon, it turned out, was still in England on holiday.
The two whites–Sandland and Brace by name–seemed easy-going chaps. Both had been out for ten years, as I’d learned from Mr Robbins in the cab. To my relief they appeared little the worse for it.
The chief of the natives was introduced as “Babu”. He might have been any age, though as he lifted his black pillbox to scratch his shaven pate I spotted a tiny grey pigtail, so he was possibly older than the others. There were at least half-a-dozen other natives, two of them in smart white uniforms decorated with sashes bearing the words “Gore & Co”. The rest wore plain shirts and dhotis.
Mr Robbins left me in the care of Sandland. “Robbins runs our outfitting department,” the latter explained, “and he does all the cutting out. Very soon he will take you along to the CMC. I think you’ll like it there.”
I asked him what CMC stood for and he replied “Christian Men’s Club”–adding with a laugh–“catering mostly for the Godless.”
He smiled at Brace, who came across and joined us. “And when you’ve settled in,” he added, “the Gymkhana can take a look at you. No doubt you’ll become a member–that’s the usual thing, isn’t it, Peter?”
Brace nodded in reply. “As Tom will know,” he said to me, “I can’t do any entertaining, now my wife has put her foot down and refused to come out here. I’ve only got a single room, now, down at Coloba. But you must go and see Tom and his memsahib. They’ve got a nice flat overlooking the Maidan.”
One of the uniformed boys came over and said “Char hi”. At that, Brace led the way to the back of the building where the tiffin room was located. This was nothing more than a screened-off part of the store, furnished with a long table and four chairs. Overhead a big double-bladed electric fan rotated slowly. Father along were two club chairs with moveable extensions to support the legs.
Shortly after we got there, Mr Robbins hurried in, swallowed a cup of tea and gave me to understand that he was ready to escort me to my quarters. We went by gharry, though the short distance could easily have been walked.
The Christian Men’s Club was one of a whole row of similar buildings. It matched the Edwardian architecture of the others but it had a good deal more frontage. This was plainly a residential area for Europeans.
We stalked into the Secretary’s office. As we did so we passed a general hall with a long dais on which there stood a grand piano. The assistant secretary, an ascetic individual looking old beyond his years, greeted us. His penetrating gaze demanded wordlessly whether one was a God-fearing person. I responded with what I hoped was a non-committal look. He showed us to the second floor and along a stone corridor to a room adjoining the verandah. It looked out onto a well-tended lawn bordered by flowering shrubs and over the rooftops you could see the blue of the Bay. My spirits, subdued at the thought of living in a place presided over by a heretical religious denomination, soared at the sight.
“Ninety rupees,” I heard the assistant secretary say.
“He can’t afford that,” said Robbins bluntly. “What else is there?”
“There is just one other room, looking down the stairwell, at 75…”
So we made for that. It turned out to be no more than 10 ft square, rather dark and with hardly space to move. A bed, a wash-stand, a chest of drawers and a small chair left room only for a tiny rush mat. A tract on the wall admonished “God is not mocked!”
“It will have to do for the time being,” said Mr Robbins. My spirits sank again. Even so I calculated it would impoverish me by nearly half my monthly pay. The contract had said £3 a week for the first year, with annual increments of 10 shillings a week thereafter.
The next thing to do was to find me a servant. I soon discovered that Robbins had a way with the natives. They detected at once that he was not the sort of European to be hoodwinked. He knew their language–which seemed to command respect (I later learned that his vocabulary consisted mostly of swearwords).
At least ten natives suddenly appeared along the corridor. Robbins said “News gets around fast in India.”
A few syllables from him brought them up from their haunches at the double. One by one he interviewed them. Without variation he opened with “Kitna picer munkhta?” –how much?
On receipt of their answer, he asked for references and was invariably handed a grubby chit. He’d not struck me as a man with much of a sense of humour, but these certainly made him giggle.
Scratching thoughtfully at his neck, he beckoned me over when the interviewing was done and said “Two are possibles. They’re both rogues–and I’ve knocked them down to 14 chips a month to start with. I wouldn’t pay more if I were you. Neither speaks a word of English–but if you kick their backsides hard enough they will understand.”
I stared at the two men he pointed out. One of these two was destined to become my servant and attend to my every need. For the first time in my life my sense of inferiority evaporated.
The first man was small and his clothes were none too clean. The other was massive–at least six inches taller than I was. His jet-black eyes challenged mine. They seem to be saying “I bet you haven’t the guts to take me on. You know full well that with half a blow I could lay you out flat.”
You could say that the decision came from him rather than from me. If I was to own a slave, then let me have one for whom I could feel a bit of human respect. So the giant it was. His name was Abdul and he was a Muslim.
“He says he’s from the Punjab,” said Robbins. “So if you keep him, be sure never to go there or he’ll run off and leave you in the lurch.” In due course I had reason to remember this.
I thanked Robbins for all he’d done for me.
“Now you unpack and have dinner,” he replied, “then go into the billiard room and get to know some of the other chaps here. Tomorrow Sandland and his memsahib will take you to the Gymkhana–and your social status here will become clearer to all concerned.”
…to be continued.