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

Next morning, with boxes checked and repacked, Abdul and I set off by train to our next port of call, a tiny native state called Sangli.  There was, it seemed, only one customer–the young Chief.  He was known as the “Chief” and not by some strange name like Maharajah, Raja, Nawab, Gaekwar, Nizam, etc, which heads of states liked to call themselves.  So far I hadn’t met any of these dignitaries and sent in my card with a certain trepidation.

To my pleasant surprise I was invited to sit in a chair on the verandah of his palace and a moment later he appeared in the company of his aide-de-camp.  There was nothing that his Highness really needed, the latter explained, but courtesy demanded that some purchase should be made, in view of my honouring his state with a visit.

Methodically the two of them chose a few pairs of silk socks and some ties and selected a pattern for an achkan which was to be exactly like those previously supplied by the firm.  Nothing could have been easier and I left the state anxious to meet all the chiefs of India, if this was the kind of people they were.

I was soon to be disillusioned.  In Kolhapur, a little farther down the line, my reception was altogether different.

The town seemed to be devoid of life.  There was not even a tonga to hand, but eventually Abdul discovered an ekka–which must be the most uncomfortable means of transport ever devised by man.  This one consisted of a plain wooden platform, about 5 ft by 3 ft, at the four corners of which were short poles supporting a canopy.  It was mounted on two wooden wheels and drawn by a tired old pony.  There was no driving seat–the driver was expected to keep his haunches propped up on the narrow edge of the platform.  Amazingly the contraption was able to take on board three human beings plus two large cases and still make progress, albeit slowly.

The road was so poor that by the time we arrived at the palace gate our buttocks were so sore that we could hardly stand upright.  A sepoy took charge of us at the entrance, conversed briefly with Abdul and ordered us to wait.  After a long delay someone came.  I knew by now how to recognise a Brahmin by his caste marks.  This man was obviously someone of importance.  I judged him to be the Dewan–the prime minister.  He wore a shapely hat of gold thread, a fine silk achkan and decorated sandals.

“His Highness does not welcome callers,” he said in tones of contempt.

I pressed the point that our firm visited the state very seldom.

“We have our own methods of shopping, thank you.”  With that he turned to go.

During my training I had been acquainted with the advisability of placating the palace staff of native states with baksheesh or some hidden discounts.  This fellow’s manner scarcely invited any such approach, but all the same I gave it a try.

“There is nothing you might need yourself?”  I said with ambiguous intent.

“Nothing.  Good day.”

Outside the gate Abdul, at my behest, asked a passer-by whether there were any other likely customers in this dour place, but the man knew of no one who could be called-on without the Dewan’s permission.  A fruitless trip–yet not entirely wasted insofar as it showed me how forbidding the interior of a native city could be.

When we reached Belgaum after dark and the driver of the bullock cart, replacing the usual tonga, had landed us at the dak bungalow, we found it was full up.  This meant that we had to spend the night in the railway waiting room–an inescapable initiation in India.

Owing to the paucity of accommodation for travellers at that time, no European moved around the country without a rezai.  Abdul made up a bed for me on the hard bench and then departed to shift for himself in the third-class waiting room.

In the restaurant I managed to get a dish of curried mutton, a burra peg of whisky and a manilla cheroot and then I took a stroll in the cantonment.

It was all very dark, the only lights being those on the tents of the itinerants.  The night was hot and still, but I was beginning to enjoy tropical heat and to take the hardships of this kind of life in my stride.

Fortunately sleep comes easily to youth.  The endless clatter of a railway station, the shunting of engines and the muscle pain produced by lying on the unyielding bench now and then did wake me up, but I soon dropped off again.

At seven Abdul brought me a cup of char, half-slopped in the saucer.  He looked as if he’d had a night on the town, his eyes leaden and his pugri half-unwound.  Even after a shave and breakfast I still did not feel like a go-getter salesman, but the day had to be faced.  Languidly I scanned the list of addresses which had been given to me.

It was a longish list, with ticks against names to indicate that they were, or had been, customers.  This at least was encouraging, so off we went to the tinkling sound of the bell on the bullock cart.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj