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

Sebastian and Abdul were poles apart.  Whereas Abdul was Muslim, Sebastian was Christian.  Instead of mystery surrounding his marital status, he proudly proclaimed he was the father of six children.  Instead of soaring to the heights of a colossus, he was pint-sized, even for a Madrassi.  And instead of wearing a pugri which would never keep folded, he was rarely seen without his brown astrakhan pillbox.

There were obvious disadvantages in having a bearer who could scarcely lift a heavy box or who might at any moment be sent for by distraught womenfolk.  But his smile got him the job.  It made his cheeks stand out from his face like two great boils.  It would make such an encouraging start to the day to be greeted by a smile like that.  I couldn’t find it in my heart to refuse him a rupee a month more than I had given Abdul–and even then I couldn’t see how he managed to support a wife and six children on it.  I promised him 20 a month when on tour with me.

It was a pity in a way that Sebastian had been educated at a missionary school, because although it meant he knew English as well as I did (moreover his turn of phrase was usually more felicitous than mine) he spoke almost no Hindustani–and his knowledge of Tamil would be useless to me until such a time as we roamed the Madras Presidency.  Still, I was, in my not-very-humble opinion, a sufficiently seasoned traveller by now to surmount most of the hurdles I’d encounter.  The munshi who twice a week had tried to teach me Urdu had done his job comparatively well–or so Robbins thought.  We’d get along somehow.

It was now April, a month after the cool winter climate had ended and more than a month before the soothing monsoon rains were due to commence.  So it was very hot and was going to stay that way for weeks.  In Delhi I anticipated that the air would be dry and much more bearable than the sticky heat of Bombay.

The morning we were due to depart, Sebastian brought along his luggage.  Not a dirty brown-paper parcel like Abdul’s, but a cowhide suitcase–which put my own to shame.  We only just managed to catch the Calcutta Mail.  We were making for a native state, as Colvin had recommended–the state of Bhopal.

This involved a change at Itarsi Junction.  Since this left me a bit of time on my hands, I walked out of the station and took a look at the railway workers’ houses.  The idea occurred to me to try my luck at selling them something.  But the memory of Hubli returned–and with it the poor man who was prepared to sacrifice several months’ pay for the privilege of owning an elegant suit like a white man.  I decided I would only do that sort of thing once.

It was well on into the afternoon when we reached Bhopal.  My first question to the ticket collector was, as ever, to know where the dak bungalow was situated.  He pointed towards the railway crossing to a smallish building.  With the help of a porter we manhandled the boxes over to it.  Fortunately for me there was a room available.

Seeing a European face, the khansamah evinced surprise that, having business to do in the state, I had not been invited to stay in the Begum’s guest-house.  It was hard to convince him that I have not made a mistake in coming to him.  Evidently box-wallahs never put their noses into the state of Bhopal.

Later Sebastian told me that the khansamah had gone to the stationmaster and requested him to phone the police to ask them to check-up on me.  He must have thought me a suspicious character.  I would have appreciated a nicer welcome.  No one at Gore & Co knew anything about Bhopal beyond the fact that one of the Begum’s sons was a customer.  Recalling the reception accorded me by the official at Kolhapur, I cast my eye over the vicinity of the station.  It had a forbidding look about it.

Now it often happens that things turn out better than it might appear at first sight.  A box-wallah starved of optimism had no business to be doing the job, as my experience to date had shown.  The Law of Averages works in favour of the conscientious salesman.  So next morning Sebastian and I left by tonga to travel the several miles to the Begum’s palace.

As we climbed steadily my spirits improved.  We drove between a racecourse and a lake.  I then recalled that the second son of Her Highness (his name was on my customer list) happened to be HH General Obaidulla Khan Bahadur–one of India’s finest patrons of the turf.

Instantly I changed my plans and decided to make him my first port of call.  Though whether or not he was at home–traveller as he had to be, for a nationally-recognised sportsman–was something I had to take on chance.  As it happened he had departed for Bombay the day before.  Or so the guard informed me at the gate of his residence.

Now on several occasions during my previous tour, attendants had tried to turn me away by telling me lies.  So I begged to be allowed to see his secretary.  This turned out to be an extremely fortunate thing to do, for I was welcomed with open arms by the whole retinue of His Highness’s staff.

After shaking hands, the leader of the party graciously informed me that his master had received a letter from Gore & Co advising him that I would call.  Since he was going to miss me, he’d left instructions for his wardrobe to be inspected and replenished where necessary.  What a sportsman!

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj