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

I now went back to the officers’ mess.  It was too much to expect that anyone would be awake at this time of the afternoon.  Even the bhishti was sound asleep on the verandah beside his leaking water-skin.  My watch told me that if I made haste to pick up the other cases on the way to the station, I could just catch the train to Sangli.  Thanks to the interminable wrangling at the bazaar I had failed to keep my appointment with the captain.  Doubtless he had told his fellow-officers of my impending visit, but by now, even if they were still awake, they would be annoyed at my non-appearance or they would have forgotten all about it.  Set against this was the fact that fully a score of officers were cooped-up here and they’d come from regiments posted to out-of-the-way places where shopping was impossible.  My gambling instinct bade me hang on.

After a sleep and a pot of tea at the dak bungalow, Abdul and I went to the officers’ mess.  It was encouraging to hear movement and chatter coming from inside.  A bearer came to the door.  I had met him before and he soon brought the captain.  Not a word from the latter about my lateness.  “Bring in the boxes,” he said with a grin.

It subsequently occurred to me that what must have gone on in his mind was that here was a heaven-sent opportunity to arrange a treat for his men, as a reward for all their hard work on the course.  Such simple pleasures men have, when they’ve been all cooped-up for a fortnight, with little or no diversion.

The lounge was quite large, so I opened up all the boxes and gave a complete display.  Soon one officer after another entered.  Some wore towels round their middles or were drying themselves.  Their course was now over and the resulting relaxation of nervous tension might have explained their unbridled behaviour, as in little groups they flung themselves at the boxes, completely emptying them.

Of what happened then I was a mere spectator.  Two tugged at a tie, over which both claimed ownership.  Two others were throwing manicure sets up into the air, trying to get them high enough without actually touching the ceiling.  Both boxes soon fell on the floor, scattering their contents.

“Gentlemen,” I shouted after a while.  “Anything you break I will have to pay for.”  By that stage I was almost in tears.

The captain promptly came to my rescue.  “Claims for damage will be put on your mess bills, so shut up and just buy what you need.”  Contrition swiftly overcame the group and they actually apologised to me.  An hour later I found that I’d sold a sizeable quantity of articles from each box–and even the pattern-books had come in useful.

“Can’t you make us a suit?”  one officer had asked me.  “It would be a sheer waste to buy this quality of material and give it to one’s derzi to make-up.”

Clearly the only way I was going to sell him the suiting he liked would be to arrange to have them made up into suits.  But how?  Although my firm had a cutter–Robbins–and a tailoring department of sorts, I had no experience in this craft and indeed I scarcely knew one end of an inch-tape from the other.  However I was already beginning to grasp the fact that a good proportion of a seller’s success results from his sense of enterprise.  In a flash of recklessness I asked if there was a derzi in the house.  While other transactions were going on, a search-party was sent out and one was brought in.  I beckoned the man aside and showed him a five-rupee note.  Then I took the inch-tape from around his neck and showed him what I wanted to know by placing the tape round my own chest and buttocks.  He gave me a look of sudden enlightenment and began to imitate my actions.  I nodded hard, then ran my hands down the suit I wore.  Clearly he comprehended. 

I called back the officer concerned and indicated to the derzi that I wanted this man’s measurements.  As best as I could I wrote these down, hoping that I’d understood the man’s Hindustani aright, with sufficient comments to enable me to distinguish which measurements were whose later on.  Then I gave him the notepad to hold and took over the transaction.  I had great difficulty in trying to remember what the firm charged for a suit, so the figures I quoted to those interested–and seven officers were–involved a high degree of guesswork.  This I freely admitted to them. 

From then on the proceedings became a good-natured game, with everyone trying to take part.  Officers paired-up and wrote down each others’ measurements.  A plentiful amount of checking and rechecking was involved, because if the firm did accept these orders, it would hardly redound to my credit if the goods were all eventually returned.  To be on the safe side I asked for a 25% deposit–and it was a sign of how keen they were–or perhaps how entertaining they all found it–that no one declined to pay.

The captain put his oar in.  “In case of errors, I’ll ask you all for a copy of your measurements–and if you have any complaints, direct them to me and I’ll try and get it sorted out.”  He glanced at me for my approval–which I was delighted to give.  But, wisely perhaps, he refrained from ordering a suit himself.

“So,” he added, addressing me, but really for the benefit of the assembly, “when you find that you have legs for sleeves and vice-versa, let me know, giving me some idea of the sizes of things that don’t fit, and I’ll tell you where to post them on.”  This caused a roar of laughter.

I made my preparations to leave, feeling much relief at the outcome and happiness at the quantity of business I’d done.  I was given a rousing send-off, my pockets stuffed with money of one sort or another.  Hungry and thirsty, with my shantung suit saturated with sweat, and of course having missed the train, I had no option but to return to the dak bungalow for the night, take a swill of whisky, get into a dressing-gown and fall asleep, which I did all in the space of a minute.  But on the way back a glance at the faces of Abdul and the tonga-wallah left me in no doubt that I’d done the right thing.  It is often more exhausting to hang around doing nothing than to be frantically busy all day.

After dinner, which was ready when I woke up, I made out the orders and the cash slips.  That day my takings had been over a hundred pounds.  If I could only do business to this tune every day, said I to myself with stupendous optimism, Gore & Co might keep me on the road permanently and I would easily fulfil my ambition to see the whole peninsula.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj