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

Mr Colvin, as I was soon to learn, was not a man who believed in wasting money either on entertaining or in the running of the business.  One day, at the turn of the year, with his sleeves rolled up and mopping his greasy brow, he thumped me heartily on the back and said, “Nida, me boy, you should be ready by now to go out and sell all this stuff on the road–that is, up in the mofussil.”

This meant the length and breadth of India, except where our competitors from Calcutta had thoroughly established themselves.  Seeing the look on my face he added “You want to get to know India, don’t you?  It’s the finest way to learn.”

I could have replied that he was a fine one to talk, since I knew that all he’d ever seen of the sub-continent beyond Bombay, in his twenty years of self-imposed exile, had been the tiny hill-station of Matheran in the nearby Western Ghats.  It would, his staff had said, have killed him in the first week if he’d had to take a long train journey into the mofussil and put up at a couple of lousy dak bungalows–and probably, since he was no salesman, return without securing an order of any consequence.

It was easy to tell, though, that I was not jumping with joy at the idea.  All those romantic books I had read about the country were dwindling in my mind and I was beginning to find Bombay a comfortable place to live.  I was enjoying the social life of the commercial gymkhana.

“Well,” he said, when I’d taken a few moments to react, “aren’t you going to thank me for sending your out so early?  You’ll save your keep, you know, and earn a bit of commission into the bargain.”

“Yes sir–of course,” I replied, trying hard to make my face look brighter at the prospect.

“Then the first thing to learn is the grades and prices of everything by heart.”

“I have,” I said, not meaning to make it sound quite so challenging.

Forthwith he submitted me to an impromptu test, which I must have passed with flying colours, for after puckering his brow for a moment he announced that he’d already worked out a tour in his head–an “experimental” one.  Next morning he went over it with me.

“You’ll be going down south–to Poona first.  There you’ll change for Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur–come over to the map with me–Belgaum, Bijapur, Sholapur and Ahmadnagar.  You should be up and away in about three weeks, before the hot weather sets in.”

In the event, zero hour was set at a week thence.  This would give the firm time to write to potential customers in order to announce the approximate date of my arrival.  There was a standard form of circular letter, but since nobody had ventured out for ages the only available copies were curled and brown.  It read like this:

Messrs Gore & Co have great pleasure in informing you that their representative Mr ……  will be visiting your station shortly.  He will take the liberty of delivering a leaflet by his bearer on arrival.  Mr ……  will be displaying his samples at the dak bungalow (or ……  Hotel) and he will gladly call at any time convenient.  A message to await him on his arrival would be welcome.

Below this was typed a catalogue of the latest range of goods for sale and copies were invariably posted to reputable bazaar merchants, native chiefs, Indian Civil Servants, regimental officers, PWD engineers, members of the Indian Medical Service and other dignitaries in the respective localities.  A list of their names, where known, was given to me before departure (or posted care of the post offices I was due to pass through) so that I should be sure to call, since in practice few calls were ever requested–which hardly indicated a huge show of enthusiasm among our prospects.

Nevertheless on the Monday I left for my initial tour.  Comparison with the expeditions of Clive or Hawkins would have been otiose–for instead of a bodyguard of armed seamen I had Abdul.  And instead of the pile of precious gifts with which to bribe my hosts, I took six black boxes of samples, each looking rather like a coffin.

Fortunately Abdul agreed to come before he knew which direction I was taking.  However, when he found out that his native Punjab was not on the list of places to be visited, it was necessary for me to increase his pay to 20 rupees per month.  The CMC allowed me to keep my room at half price during my absence, so that was one less thing to worry about.

Dada, that is, the babu, made me sign a book as he handed over 200 rupees on account for my expenses.  This was supposed to last me a fortnight–roughly £1 a day.  We left after tiffin, so loaded up with luggage that we had to hire a second gharry to take two of the cases plus my own suitcase, valise (with rezai and pillow) and Abdul’s luggage wrapped up in a large brown-paper parcel.  We stopped at the store for last-minute instructions.

Extending a clammy hand, Mr Colvin said “Mind you keep your bowels open.  Send a money order back to us whenever you have collected 300 rupees or more.  And don’t forget you’ve goods worth nearly a thousand pounds in those boxes.”

It would not be politic, so I was admonished, ever to travel first-class–because there was dreadful snobbery among Europeans on trains and Gore & Co did not wish to get themselves a bad name among potential customers.  Mr Colvin might have added–but didn’t–that second-class tickets were around half the price.

It was only as I entered the compartment that it dawned on me, after Abdul had deposited the boxes in the luggage van, that he would be going third-class and so I would not see him again for several hours until we reached Poona, where we were due to change trains.  How I was supposed to manage if I wanted anything, or was suddenly taken ill, I had no idea, since up till then my Hindustani vocabulary had been pretty well confined to swearwords.  As it turned out, the two other occupants of the carriage were Eurasian railway clerks and despite their humble origin they spoke more elegant English than any of the inmates of the CMC.

The journey up the Western Ghats was tedious.  We chugged up the incline so slowly that I half-expected the train to lose its grip on the rails and slide backwards.  After an hour or more of climbing, the engine overheated and had to be removed and another substituted.  I had never been so high above sea-level in my life–and I found the panoramic view of the hinterland exhilarating.

On we sped to Poona, which I had been told to pass over as a place full of half-mad colonels and racegoers.  My destination–my very first port of call–was the civil and military station of Satara.  Its celebrated School of Musketry would, so Mr Colvin had assured me, be “a happy hunting ground to start me off on the right foot”.

We arrived just as dusk fell.  There was no porter, so Abdul and I dragged the cases ourselves out of the luggage van.  Several tongas were waiting and their wallahs began fighting among themselves for our custom.  Eventually, when the battle was over, the victor allowed us to perch our luggage on the back seat.

It was a perilous undertaking.  Right up to the time I got up and sat with Abdul beside the driver to restore the vehicle’s balance, the poor pony looked like being hoisted bodily off the roadway.  

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj