An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
I now began to look upon life in Bombay a little more dispassionately. I realised I had nothing in common with my colleagues at Gore & Co, nor for that matter the other men staying at the CMC. I didn’t consider I was being snobbish–I had nothing against them for being clerks or shop assistants–as some other Europeans might have. But the one thing I objected to was their heavy drinking. It disturbed me in the wee small hours. The front door was never closed–and after midnight the Superintendent and his assistant were seldom to be seen. It was then–and it happened every night–that the drunks returned and attempted to find their rooms, fouling-up this elementary task so frequently that they woke the whole floor.
It was obvious where they’d been. The hotels and clubs had all long since closed–so they could only have come from the Khamatapura district, where the brothels went hard-at-it all through the night. Yet anyone getting turned out for un-Christian conduct was a thing unheard-of. The Ten Commandments do seem to mean different things in another land.
Apart from diversions of this nature, there was little to do in Bombay after dark, beyond going out to the Gymkhana to play billiards or cards, or drinking at the few hotels frequented by Europeans–or just walking and walking along Back Bay or the Apollo Bunder until you were thoroughly tired out. The higher-ups had places to go like the Yacht Club, the Byculla Club and the occasional languid reception at Government House.
Additionally, serving as places of refuge for the well-to-do, there were two good Italian restaurants, Mongini’s and Cornaglia’s. I used to join Sandland and Brace at one or the other for an evening drink, when I felt I could afford it. Otherwise it was straight to the Gymkhana for snooker, tennis or bowls. This being the tropics, dusk came so quickly after the store closed that it was mostly snooker, at which I soon began to show promise. Back home in England they’d say that showing promise at snooker was the sign of a misspent youth. How else you could misspend your youth in Bombay wasn’t for me to say.
Club life, however, didn’t enthuse me much. Time alone would teach me that in the tropics small-talk and superficial companionship comprise the greater part of a man’s existence. At my time of life I was too young for any clique of Europeans to feel like adopting me–leaving aside of course thespian poker schools. For this reason I took measures to suggest another tour to Mr Colvin, although I had still some way to go to regain my lost weight.
He frowned doubtfully over this. “Well–it’s getting a bit warm in the mofussil this time of year. Most of the civil servants in their wisdom will be venturing into the hill stations. Let me have a word with Mr Haddon.”
Mr Haddon! I nearly sniggered at the mention of the name. I had of course seen him around the store, discussing business with other members of staff. But in the whole six months he had approached me precisely once–and then only to ask if I’d happen to overhear a certain customer’s conversation. He gave every sign of having completely forgotten his pledge to my father to look after me like a son. Not that I minded overmuch. He struck me as utterly humourless, spending most of his life in the counting house. Rumour had it that due to his indifferent health–TB in one lung–he was making all the profit he could over the next five years and then aimed to spend the rest of his days in Switzerland. In view of the nice profit I’d shown on the first tour, I was in little doubt that if his permission were to be sought for another one, it would be granted without a moment’s reflection.
Next morning Mr Colvin came to me with a smile on his face. “You can go. Where would you like to stop?”
I must have looked blank, although my travel permit came as no surprise. “I suggest,” he said, “that you work your way up to Delhi, calling-in on the native states as far as possible. They don’t run away from the heat as fast as the Europeans do, hating to risk their health.”
It was clear that the risk to my health from the Indian summer heat never even entered the equation. But that didn’t bother me either.
The first problem was finding another boy. Abdul, once he’d caught up with his wife, never put in another appearance. Either “wifey” had nailed him down to a settled job or he saw no future in being a box-wallah’s mate. So I asked the boy I was still sharing with my neighbour to look out for someone suitable. In no time at all, half the male population of Bombay was once again packed in my corridor and spilling down the fire-escape.
This time it didn’t occur to me to seek Robbins’s assistance. The experience of the sea voyage, coupled with the self-assurance I’d gained on tour from working on my own for a couple of weeks, had given me grown-up eyes with which to view life. Eyes which perhaps were a little too introspective–too ready to view the behaviour of my contemporaries with icy detachment.
Was I still only eighteen? I could hardly believe it.
…to be continued.