An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Luckily the distance to the dak bungalow was not more than a mile and the road surface was fairly smooth. The clattering of hooves brought the khansamah scurrying to his porch. He rushed out to unload before I could ask if he had accommodation available.
“No one come today. School closed–course over,” he announced in due course.
Surely Mr Colvin should have known that! So, I thought despondently, fate was against me from the very outset. However in a civil station there would be a collector with an assistant, plus the usual government officers like the IMS doctor, PWD engineer, sometimes a district magistrate and a forestry officer. And here, of course, there must also reside the commandant and staff of the famous Musketry School. But in all events, even if there were no possible customers at this station, it was too late in the day to go anywhere else.
In India at that time, hotels existed only in provincial capitals and tourist centres. Elsewhere dak bungalows–or failing that, the railway waiting room–provided the only accommodation for travellers. My little room was furnished with a charpoy covered with webbing and a wash stand with mirror and chair. No bedding was offered–which was one reason to travel with a rezai (a kind of thin quilted mattress) plus a pillow, all rolled into a waterproof valise.
As soon as the light was switched on–or the oil lamp lit–thousands of moths, weird-looking flies, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other insects would crowd into the room to keep company with the lizards already there on the walls. The latter would then set about knocking off every one in two of them.
The door had neither key nor bolt. What about a meal? Well–curried mutton could be ready in half-an-hour, and for dessert there were some plantains. The only potable fluid was locally bottled soda water, so I was glad to have a bottle of whisky to hand for sterilisation purposes. Abdul went off to the servants quarters, so after eating my meal alone I went to bed with a book.
With window closed–and the chair propped under the door handle to obstruct intruders rather than presume to keep them out, I settled down, expecting the punkah-wallah (to whom I had given four annas) to continue pulling the rope outside until I had turned out the light. But every minute or so he’d stop–and start pulling again only when I shouted. I was not impressed. Was this, I wondered, typical of the style of living in store for me for the next three weeks?
Chota hazri–a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits–arrived at seven, brought by Abdul. I thought it wise not to inquire after his comfort, in case he should request me to send him home. I drank the tea and ate the biscuits, then proceeded to light my pipe. Before I’d got it fully going, the door opened again and in came a large tray with more tea, toast and two of the tiniest boiled eggs I had ever seen. Over this somewhat more substantial breakfast I scanned my list of calls and ordered a tonga at nine.
The one that came was a far superior conveyance to the one we’d had the night before, chosen as the latter had been by the fighting prowess of the driver rather than by its appearance. It balanced itself on two huge rubber-tyred wheels, sported a stripy canopy and announced its arrival through a bell hung round the neck of the Arab steed. Assisted by the tonga-wallah Abdul soon had boxes numbered 1 and 2 aboard and off we set for the residential quarter.
Box 1 carried textile pattern-books, socks, ties, silk and cotton handkerchiefs, underwear, a cap or two, dressing gowns, shoes and slippers, and all that kind of thing. Box 2 contained watches and bracelets, rings, sets of shirt studs, tie-pins–some of them quite precious–razors, strops, blades, hairbrushes, perfumes, alarm clocks, cutlery and other articles to tempt somebody with itchy fingers. If, of course, you had urgently wanted a shantung or mercerised cotton suit–and had not too inflated or deflated a figure to fit out of stock–back I would have had to go to the dak bungalow to fetch it. Indeed the same was true of a wide selection of other articles, like camp equipment, ladies’ hose and even knickers. I never had the courage to mention the last-named in my sales talk, though occasionally a woman in desperate need would rummage through the boxes on the off-chance of finding a pair.
My very first call was on a Collector. Leaving the tonga I walked shakily up the path and a chaprassi answered the bell. He was an imposing mahratta, attired in spotless turban, jodhpurs and ashkan–a long white coat buttoning at the neck. A wide crimson sash was draped slantwise across his chest and a girdle of the same colour decorated his waist, out of which poked a sheathed stiletto. He took my card and then eyed me with obvious contempt. “Collector sahib at hazri,” he murmured, handing back the card, and just left me there on the threshold. But before I got to the gate I heard him call out after me “Sahib nay munkhta” (didn’t want).
It was evident that such visits to the godhead were not welcome. The same poor hospitality was accorded me at several other bungalows until I reached an Assistant Collector. To my surprise he came back in person, in place of his bearer, brandishing my card.
“Oh my God it’s you!” he ejaculated with wry amusement. That was one benefit of having an unusual name–people didn’t forget it. He stood over six feet tall–an athletic blond beast of about 23. I blushed as I remembered him as one of my protagonists in the ship’s greasy pole contest. I recalled only too well that after a fierce tussle with him, both armed only with pillows, I had managed by a fluke to give him a ducking.
“I must say you puzzled me on board. Somehow I didn’t think you were one of us.”
“I wish I’d had your good fortune,” I replied with due humility.
“You seem damned young for this sort of work.” I told him my age. “What a waste!” he remarked, as though to himself. Then he added, peering at my card, “I suppose you’re not selling watches, are you? –you ruined mine, you know, in that pool!”
I offered him one he liked at sixty rupees.
“I’m not paying your fare out, old chap,” he smirked. “I’ll give you fifty.”
I bargained for fifty-five and got it. It still left twenty rupees profit. Having paid up, he bade me a stiffish adieu and went indoors, suddenly seeming to have become conscious of his superior status. Already my inferior position had made me feel unduly self-conscious and I think this gesture was about the last straw. But I managed to console myself with the observation that I needed to endure such minor slights if I was to realise my yearning to see India.
…to be continued.