An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
The end of my first short tour now loomed in sight. There remained only Ahmednagar to visit, another combined civil and military cantonment. Its dak bungalow was larger than those at which I had so far stayed, being rather more comfortable too, but the town itself possessed little of character.
The selling went badly. How widely spaced were the European bungalows–and what long walks I had to take from the gates to the front doors and back again. The season was now really hotting up. At the end of the first day I was utterly exhausted–and I’d found no one willing to see me. Next day a couple of army officers cheered me up a bit through the few odd purchases they made, but a grinding lassitude was starting to overtake me.
That evening, as the hours dragged on, normal perspiration ceased. My skin became dry, my lips parched and my brow feverish. Until then, the thought of sickness had never entered my mind. I made a lunge for the quinine bottle and, having swallowed five grains, went to bed. Since I had not presented myself for dinner, the khansamah sent Abdul in with a tray of food of sorts, but my appetite deserted me. Instead I called for a bottle of soda water and before long I had downed several.
Soon I noticed blood in my loose stools. Of this I said nothing to Abdul–but somehow he guessed. His voice was tinged with concern as he enquired if I wanted a doctor. I rejected the idea. I was fearful that if I got any worse and a doctor saw me, he would almost certainly send me to hospital. Then, when I returned to Bombay, the partners of Gore & Co might conclude I was not constitutionally suited to being on the road.
I had thoughtfully packed a bottle of chlorodyne on the advice of Sandland, who swore to its efficacy in cases of diarrhoea. Could this however be the dreaded dysentery, from which so many Europeans died? After two days, during which I ate nothing, I was confronted by the khansamah who, understandably enough, didn’t want a corpse on his hands.
“Sahib see a doctor, please,” he whined. “Sahib go to hospital, maybe?”
I shook my head and forced a smile. “I’m all right,” I groaned. “Tomorrow I leave.”
The khansamah went out again and I heard him and Abdul fiercely arguing the matter. I began to wonder whether I might soon be facing a doctor willy-nilly. Or some other professional. A glance at myself in the shaving mirror revealed an awful sight–two-days’ growth of beard and an ashen-coated tongue. More of concern to me were my hopelessly sunken cheeks. Perhaps I really was ill. The thermometer registered 104 degrees, which on reflection did rather lend credence to the idea. Nevertheless I was determined not to give in to it.
Abdul tracked down more chlorodyne for me in the bazaar. Taking 30 drops every few hours I managed gradually to cut down on my visits to the lavatory. Three more days went by. My return to Bombay would have been anticipated by now, so I ought to write a letter to head-off a telegraphed inquiry. I wrote that I would be leaving the following day and, since the fever was beginning to subside, I was able to rise at last. But little else.
I made a supreme effort to pack. Abdul, despite his brute force and ham-fistedness, was solicitude itself and as gentle as a lamb with me. I was almost wondering if he might be growing fond of me, but he confessed later that the younger of his two wives would be in Bombay when he arrived back, she having paid a visit to her family in Bhopal.
At last, to the khansamah’s ill-concealed relief, we got underway. Abdul found me an empty second-class compartment, opened up the valise and promptly disappeared into his own carriage. I lay prone and slept until the train pulled into Poona station. An almighty hubbub assailed my ears. Half-a-dozen Indian officers, havildars and sub-havildars from a cavalry regiment, dashed in to lay claim to any and all vacant seats. The chain-epaulettes which were their distinguishing mark glittered in the bright sunshine and made my eyes smart. To make room for them I had to lever myself up off the seat and be content with sitting upright for the rest of the journey. Miraculously Abdul managed to find me a cup of char and some biscuits–and to my surprise I discovered I was hungry.
It’s a long slow journey descending the Western Ghats from Kalyan, though not as slow as climbing them in the opposite direction, changing engines every so often. The endless jabbering of my carriage companions prevented further sleep and somebody’s elbow kept prodding in my side every time the train lurched my way. It was with enormous relief that we pulled into Bombay Victoria Station.
Abdul took me in a gharry straight to the CMC. Once there I scrambled into my bed on the verandah. Abdul hung around. He said he wanted some pay, so I settled-up with him. Half-an-hour later there was no sign of him when I called. I never saw him again.
For the next few days my room neighbour kindly shared his boy with me. I sent a message to the store, which brought Robbins rushing round to see me.
I never really got the hang of Robbins–he seldom spoke about himself. The general opinion in the store was that he was “four or five annas”–by which they meant that he was thought to have a dash of non-European blood in his veins. He never talked about it of course–no Eurasian ever does, if he can avoid it. His wife was known to be of mixed blood and was never seen around. He always maintained that he came from Croydon–and indeed he knew quite a bit about the town. But we all thought it strange that he’d never applied to be a member of the Gymkhana. Once upon a time the firm sent him travelling. The only orders he took in an entire month were for two suits. So the firm let him get on with what he was good at–being a cutter.
“You look rather seedy, Nida. Can’t I get you a doctor?”
“Not me,” I assured him. “I might have done with one a few days ago. But I’m picking up now.”
Robbins communicated the partners’ pleasure at my success. “You’ve done better than anyone’s ever done before. In fact you’ve been sentenced in your absence to travel permanently.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I smiled. For now that I was well on the road to recovery, my first taste of India had whetted my appetite for more.
…to be continued.