An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Before the day was out I had rather got to like Belgaum. It doesn’t take long for a salesman to acquire a sixth sense about a district. Precisely what it is that appeals to him, he might find difficult to explain. It may be the bustle of the place, the happy look on the faces of its inhabitants, its style of architecture or simply its smell. All of these, or maybe any one of them, promised me that there would be business in Belgaum.
I encountered distempered bungalows lying neatly concealed among trees, a salubrious bazaar and an atmosphere of bonhomie among its Europeans–even among the ICS, let it be said. I found it most soothing. Belgaum is both a military and a civil station–this I discovered made all the difference to the sociability of the civil servants. A cynic might have dismissed it as the fear inspired in the hearts of the ICS wallahs by the presence of so many virile regimental officers. Whatever the reason, I was pleased to find chaprassis who were unusually soft of countenance and indulgent of callers. Before much of the day had passed, it was clear that I should be spending a second night there. Luckily someone had vacated his room at the dak bungalow, so I seized the chance to move in.
In a matter of hours my stock of goods needed replenishment. My telegram to Bombay for “something of everything” to be sent off by train to Bijapur must have gladdened the hearts of my employers. As it happened I stayed in Belgaum a third day to give time for the consignment to arrive–and also to give me a chance for some rest and relaxation.
It was a week since I’d begun this expedition and although I felt sure that the Indian climate was just what my constitution desired, a weighing machine warned me that I’d lost over a stone in weight. The realisation that I was not as fit as I thought came after I had, out of vanity I suppose, permitted a local photographer to take a picture of me beside the bullock cart I was using–and I saw for myself how my clothes were hanging off me. It occurred to me that before all other considerations I had a body to maintain.
Was my weight loss, I wondered, due to drinking too much whisky? Frequently I found myself craving for a pick-me-up–and what other palatable drink was there? Nevertheless I kept off the whisky for a day or two and sampled the local ginger beer. It was abominable.
Only a travelling salesman, I realised, could really come to know how desolate existence could become. To people who have never experienced life on the road it may appear to be one of infinite variety–anything but boring. That this is far from the case is due to drumming the same old rhythm day after day, with little opportunity for alternative mental stimulation, let alone the time for it. At night, back in his hostelry, the salesman finds himself in the company of others equally as tired as he is. To my advantage I had my unalloyed youth, plus a sense of purpose yet-to-be corroded by disillusion. Ere long I made a firm resolution not to stop at a station of whatever sort without doing my damnedest to land an order. Rather a shame that, because at the very next station my sense of purpose was put severely to the test–and it was not I who faced the consequences.
I got down at Hubli, a small junction on the way to Bijapur. Its main inhabitants were Eurasian railway workers, paid a pittance yet prepared to spend their last brass farthing to ape their perceived ideal: the pukka white European. One youngish fellow whose path crossed mine lived in a crowded little house in the railway “lines” with his scrawny wife and half-a-dozen scruffy, boisterous and thoroughly contented-looking children. For me, young as I was, he merely offered a challenge to my resolve. On the pay he received, and in view of his heavy family responsibilities, he could not in all honesty have afforded to buy a thing except in a native bazaar. His own vanity, plus my burgeoning and enthusiastic persuasive powers, proved to be a lethal mixture for him. It committed him to an outlay on a suit of clothes which could well have represented two or three months’ pay. As I left the house I could not fail to overlook the reproof on the face of his wife as I passed her in the doorway. The sight of it gave me an unanticipated sting of shame. In the best of light I was only doing my job. In the worst I was taking bread out of their children’s mouths. When a week or two later I returned to Bombay, I must admit I was hoping that his VPP parcel had been rejected–which would have been the wise thing for him to do. But it hadn’t. My victim must have wanted so badly to be a pukka white man–or at least to look a bit like one.
Bijapur lifted my heart instantly–not because I smelt business, but because here was an enthralling chapter of Indian history jumping straight out the pages of the books I had been reading. It was here that the rulers of Bijapur had bloodily resisted the Great Moghuls and the Bahmanid kings. During the drive to the dak bungalow we passed a series of round stone forts. Many of them were in ruins, but some were being used as residences by the administrators. Right now the thought of selling anything was anathema to me. The aura of romance which surrounded the station in my mind brought vividly to life phalanxes of charging horsemen bent on conquest. Once again I was fighting on the side of Adil Shah, striving to raise the siege of Aurangzeb before the capital was finally overwhelmed. I spent some time in the Great Mosque and in the Mihtar-i-Mahal Palace, taking photograph after photograph until dusk made the task impossible. Not until it was too late to do anything about it did I feel the prick of conscience that I had not made a single call that day. Still, I had to ask myself, why had I chosen to come to India?
At my next stop, the mill town of Sholapur, instinct warned me that I should be wasting my time. And so it came to pass. The mill managers were men from the industrial north of Britain and their harsh upbringing was not something they were apt to forget. They had come to live in this uncongenial climate only to save money, as one or two of them made plain to me. The civil servants too seemed to have picked-up the mill-managers’ congenital immunity to spending money. The only order I took that day–from an out-and-out muckybrass for a suit–arose from his conviction that after beating down my (exaggerated) price he had succeeded in striking a hard bargain. Even so he must have had second thoughts, because the very next day he cancelled the order by post.
…to be continued.