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

It was now time for tiffin and there were no further calls to make.  As the tonga passed by the Musketry School, we could see a group of people on bicycles riding towards the officers’ mess.

“Course no finish!”  shouted Abdul.  The khansamah must have been misinformed.

My spirits rose.  After the last bicycle had gone into the stack, I beckoned the tonga-wallah to park in the driveway and knocked on the door.

An officer answered–a captain in fact–and glanced at my card.  Then, touching my arm paternally and with a twinkle in his eye, he said “Come back in an hour or so and I’ll try and round up some of the chaps.”

After a curry and a swig of scotch, off I went with Abdul to the bazaar.  The hot air hung round my shoulders like a burning shroud.  The white road was blinding me, so I put on my amber glasses.  We went slowly past the tiny shops, which were extended by stalls out onto the pathway.  Their appearance held out little promise of worthwhile trade.

I was about to order the tonga to do the about-turn when one of the shop-owners got up from his haunches, flung away the butt of his biddy and bawled something at Abdul, who interpreted for me.  “He want to know if you have cloth.”

So I dismounted and the dhoti-clad shop-owner pointed to a length of material hung up on display.  It was indeed cloth–a worsted of very fine quality.  What it was doing in this corner of the world was a mystery to me.  He spoke no English and Abdul could only shrug his broad shoulders when it came to discussing the nuances of cloth.  So we brought down the box with the pattern-books in it and opened it up right there in the street.  From that moment on the shop-owner behaved like a child with a new toy.  He grabbed book after book, turning over each pattern with a dampened finger, completely absorbed in the operation and oblivious of anyone’s presence.  Having inspected everything in the box, he nodded towards the tonga, giving us to understand he wished to see inside the second box.  I blandly shook my head.  Resignedly he resumed his quest–if indeed it was a quest–for the cloth he sought.  This time he turned over an occasional pattern for further reference and at last began to talk prices.  Quite an hour had passed when he stopped to wipe his steaming spectacles.  Looking up at me he smiled and shook his head.  I asked Abdul what this meant and after some consultation he replied “Too dear”.

I had of course learnt from watching Sandland and Brace serving in the store that in India the prices of goods were never those as marked–at least not when dealing with Indians–but rather what they could be knocked down to after interminable bargaining.  In the next half-hour I received a lesson in selling which in the days to come would stand me in excellent stead, even though it’s worth in cash was negligible.  And it was also losing me time to take more profitable orders at the officers’ mess.  The shop-owner began an irritating wrangle over price by assuring Abdul that the worsted he had hanging up had cost less than a quarter of what I was asking for a similar grade.  This was patently a lie.  I suppose it was my annoyance at this blatant attempt to mislead which caused me to slam down the lid and make a sign to Abdul to put the box back on the tonga.  The shop-owner’s expression changed at once.  In place of his previous look of self-assurance, he put on one of deep humiliation.  The tonga-wallah, who was enjoying himself immensely over our harangue, had the resource to jump down and buttonhole a man he recognised farther up the street.

“I try help you?”  the stranger queried.  It turned out that he was respected in those parts as something of an English scholar.  Explanations commenced–and from that moment on we were all in a test of endurance.  The material, which was double-width, was priced at five-and-a-half rupees per yard.  If I’d had the good sense to remove the label prior to the sale–and had called to mind the pitting of wits which went on during Sunday mornings between my Bombay companions and the merchants of the local bazaar, simply for the fun of discovering how much the prices of articles could eventually be reduced–my worsted would surely have begun at ten rupees a yard.  But the price tag had betrayed me.  In desperation I suggested four-and-a-half rupees, but the answer was No.  Once again I was on the point of closing the lid, but the astute shop-owner, spotting this, smiled and placed a restraining hand on my wrist.  He was signalling that he was committed to a purchase, at whatever price we could hammer out between us.  Through our interpreter he offered three-and-a-half rupees while keeping his hand on the lid.  I refused firmly and tried to look angry, but it didn’t convince him and he remained unperturbed.  Very well, his momentarily raised eyes said, I’ll do a bit better.  Three rupees 12 annas.  I shook my head again and, although it was somewhat rude of me, removed his hand.  14 annas?  Then:  15 annas.

“Look,” I cried to the interpreter, whose polished brow now showed deep furrows of concern.  “If he’ll order ten yards or more I’ll be able to make it four rupees six annas a yard.”

I immediately wished I’d held my tongue because the two of them then went into a long and heated argument of which I understood nothing.  In the end I had to interpose myself in case it ended in a fight.

“He say No.”

“All right,” I replied in disgust.  “Make it four rupees four annas–and that’s final.”

The shop-owner nodded to show that he understood and then relapsed into deep thought for well-nigh a minute.  As his eyes met mine I thought his answer was about to come–but it didn’t.  So I banged down the lid and ordered the box to be removed.  Giving a hasty salaam I jumped up on the tonga.  As far as I was concerned, the encounter was over.

Or was it?  The shop-owner must have whispered something to the interpreter, since the latter quickly raised his hand to halt the tonga.

I was furious.  I bawled–but the tonga-wallah took no notice of me.  Later, in the ensuing calm, I decided that he must have been a better salesman–or judge of human nature–than I was.  I beckoned to Abdul to bring back the box, but the shop-wallah waved his hand to restrain him.  “Char rupee doh anna,” he offered.

“No!  No!”  It was two annas too little.  I waved him away.

Acha”, he then conceded with a look of defeat.  “Char anna”.

So I dismounted.  He bought twelve yards and paid a 20% deposit in silver rupees.  The rest of the money, if he did not change his mind, would be paid to a postman on a VPP (Value Pay Postman) collection.  We now all shook hands, including the tonga-wallah, as though the whole business had been a most entertaining social occasion.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj