An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Dinner was at seven, which gave me plenty of time to have a shower and change. The khitmatgar showed me to a table with three others–young men, but all of them some years older than I. The most loquacious of them, whose name was Price, jabbered away like a Lancashire comedian.
“Bah Goom! D’you mean to say you’re only eighteen? Brought your nappies? Bah Goom! This curry’s come oop from t’sewer–it stinks!”
Price was a shop assistant at the big draper’s in town. “Bah Goom! I’ll tell you the worth of any piece of cloth–just let me feel it. Back home I worked a loom, I did.”
The man on my left was slightly older and wore heavy black glasses. He was the serious, pious type one expected to find at a place like this. But later on Price took me aside and warned me about him.
“Don’t let Travers take a fancy to you. He’ll lead you astray, he will. Not much about Khamatapura he doesn’t know, bah Goom! –and him with a wife and kids at home, too!”
Most of the inmates were either shop assistants, or clerks in the business community, and thus socially segregated from clerks in banks, shipping offices, merchant houses, engineering firms and government departments of all sorts. Employees of Gore & Co were classed as shop-wallahs because it had a retail section. So the Bombay Gymkhana was barred to them, whatever their background or education. Inevitably therefore they joined the Commercial Gymkhana, a delightfully situated bungalow-type structure in a far more imposing position on the edge of Back Bay. It boasted several tennis courts, a bowling green, three billiard tables, a card room and a mixed lounge. Nearby was the tidal swimming bath and behind it the Maidan, a large green tract which, together with the Oval alongside it, served the sporting needs of the public at large.
All in all, there was little wrong with the place. Added to which, on the other side of the city lay the harbour with its yachting facilities, ocean-going traffic and the historic Elephanta caves so favoured by picnickers. And there was the hub of all civilisation, the Oval bandstand, where any night of the week Parsees, Muslims and Mahrattas of all grades scandalised each other to the strains of Beethoven and Brahms. How could one grumble?
I was quickly initiated into the expertise of my calling and soon learned to differentiate between zephyrs and oxfords, taffetas and silks, worsteds and cheviots. A big trade was done in these materials with bazaars up-and-down the Peninsula. Then there were the precious goods departments which sold expensive necklets and bracelets, clocks and watches, fountain pens, pictures and all manner of ornaments both elegant and grotesque. Another section displayed riding and shooting kit, guns and ammunition, camping equipment, valises, rezais, boots and shoes. Finally there was the Bespoke Department for individually-fitted wear, in the charge of Mr Robbins.
It was around the time we were shutting up shop on the second evening when “Tiger” Tyler found me. He was wearing a dark suit which became his slight, erect figure better than the white drill jacket I’d only ever seen him in.
“Hello Nida. I’m here to give you that other three pounds I promised you. I daresay you’ll need something to tide you over till pay-day.”
Since I was a new employee, I was hesitant about inviting him into the store to talk, so I asked him if we could get together at Watson’s Hotel, a favourite meeting point of the boat crews.
Standing outside the shop talking, our attention was suddenly diverted by a passing procession and the monotonous chanting which accompanied it.
“Don’t let me interrupt your funeral party,” he bantered. “You must get a proper look at one some time. Go up to the ghat and see them mount the body on the pyre. I have.”
I turned and looked at him in surprise. It seemed a curious pastime for any man. But of course I had discounted the spectacle aspect of the matter.
“When they get it nicely alight,” he continued, “you have to wait for the crack like a rifle–that’s the brains boiling and bursting the skull.”
I grimaced and shuddered.
“Later,” he went on, “they’ll throw the remains into the sea. One of these days when you’re out taking a dip you’ll notice a wave of charcoal lumps decorated with tasty bits. That’s one wayside meal I should pass up if I were you.” He laughed aloud at his little joke.
Over drinks at Watson’s Bar he gave me the money.
“This has to go to Gertie now,” I said. “It’s what I owe her.”
Tiger snorted. “That’s why I waited till today. The troupe left last night for Calcutta. They won’t be back for a month–so why don’t you just forget it.”
This time I promised him I would. But I was left wondering how I could possibly manage to avoid Gertie during the whole two weeks of her stay a month thence.
I asked how to get the money back to him. Tiger said he was happy to trust me for two months, when he’d be back in Bombay on his next voyage. I was fully expecting to be in Bombay then, but in the event I was up-country when he called round, on a practice selling expedition. He must have wondered if I was trying to give him the slip. But when I heard he’d been and left empty-handed I posted the money c/o the P&O, his shipping company. When he wrote back to acknowledge this, he said he’d got his transfer to one of the eleven-tonners which went direct from Aden to Australia.
I never saw Tiger again. Our meeting at-sea like that had been altogether fortituous and I have often wondered what kind of predicament I might have faced but for his opportune appearance on the scene. I’ve also wondered, from time to time, what the illustrious Clive would have had to say about my first faltering steps in empire-building.
…to be continued.