An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
The hour that followed was a joy I never again had the privilege to experience. The secretary, whoever he was–I never learned his name–had some rare old fun too, to the delight of the group as a whole. He pretended in jest that he was the salesman, not I, and kept asking my opinion as to whether His Highness would prefer this pattern or that one, or whether some other article “might better suit his style of beauty”. There was nothing for it but to enter into the spirit of the game and trot-out the hackneyed phrases I’d been taught to use when referring to matters of price and quality.
Back at the dak bungalow, I calculated that I’d done over £200 worth of business in that call. It did cross my mind that the whole affair might have been a glorious jape, but I rejected this as a possibility because the Secretary had insisted that I should not leave behind a single article, but hold them to one side and post them off when I returned to Bombay. The upshot was that for the rest of the trip I was carrying a box of goods I dared not open and which cost me many pounds in excess luggage. Still, I consoled myself, the profit on the deal could easily stand that.
Just as I was leaving the residence the Secretary handed me an old suit of clothes. “I’m sorry to inflict this upon you,” he said, “but it will have to do in place of measurements. You’ll need to bear in mind though that His Highness has put on two inches round the waist since he bought it.”
I could only hope that Robbins would be able to make sense of that without upsetting the general balance of the clothes ordered. But before I left I inquired if there were any other likely customers in Bhopal. At this, the members of the party looked from one to the other and I thought I detected a mischievous wink. I was therefore somewhat suspicious of the Secretary’s advice.
“Try the palace on the hill. You ought to find some good customers there–the heir-apparent and his two sons.”
I thanked him–somewhat dubiously I’m afraid. He added “But don’t say we sent you. The Nawabzada Nasrullah may not condescend to see you. And if he does see you, it may only be to ask why you had the audacity to call. If you do decide to pay him a visit, I wish you luck.”
But as I got back in my tonga, I told myself that I ought not to be afraid of calling on anyone. Indeed it was my duty to do so. It would also be good for morale to wheedle an order out of a resistant customer.
The sepoy on guard looked me over, took my card–which he could not read–and then pulled the bell. For ten minutes we paced to and fro in silence outside the palace walls. The sepoy gave no indication that such a delay was anything out of the ordinary. But at last the gate opened and a chaprassi appeared and took my card. “Nawabzada Sahib?” he enquired and I nodded. The door closed once more.
This time it was twenty minutes before anything happened. Due to my nervousness I carried on pacing it out with the guard, so that by the time the door opened again I was on the point of dropping with exhaustion.
The tonga was bidden to enter. When it stopped alongside a verandah, a chaprassi, who spoke no English and showed no sign of understanding my Hindustani, played dumb-show with me until the boxes were displayed. Another quarter-of-an-hour went by before he returned, followed by a neatly-attired man in silk turban and matching shirt and balloon-like trousers. Behind him were the two sons I had been told about. They looked about eight and ten years old and they were dressed exactly like their father. We bowed to one another without a word being spoken. Waving his hand, the Prince silently indicated that I should be seated. The two boys eagerly pounced on my goods, but their father hastily restrained them and said to me, in a controlled voice, “Forgive them–they are young. All we need is a suit and jodhpurs each for them. May I see patterns?”
I had never yet measured anyone for jodhpurs. I’d been given to understand they were difficult to fit and I would dearly have loved to ask for second-hand garments to copy instead. But I refrained from doing so because boys of that age grow out of their clothes so quickly. Instead, once they had selected the most expensive cloth I had–the price being of no concern–my inch-tape worked overtime. I must have taken ten times the measurements any cutter could possibly have needed. But I thought it best to be on the safe side. In the end, the sketches I proposed to send to Bombay looked like an exercise book full of geometry problems.
In a native state it’s not easy to find out who the likely customers are, apart from the Chief himself, his family and the Dewan, or prime minister. One learns to ask questions judiciously. There was still the Begum’s palace to visit and, though she never saw anyone herself, there was another son living there, the youngest. But, as I learned there, Nawabzada Hamidulla was only nineteen–and he was away in Alighar studying.
…to be continued.