An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
By this stage of the tour Sebastian had fairly got the hang of the job. His perennial smile allowed him to winkle out information which I would never have discovered for myself. Standing on his own outside the Begum’s palace, he was told that Bhopal had an army, of sorts. While HH “General” Obaidulla was nominally in command, it was actually run by a major–and he was to be found on the other side of the lake. He might be a customer, I felt.
At his bungalow I was directed to the barracks where I saw a huge crowd of people, many of them in uniform. I joined the throng. They were watching a cockfight. Two men, evidently officers in the Bhopal army, were egging-on their birds, one of which was literally on its last legs. It kept struggling back on its feet to peck at his adversary, but all in vain. It was a disgusting sight, but the crowd lapped it up. The fight was allowed to continue until the loser lay still in a heap of feathers.
Spotting a European among the crowd the Major, a massive fellow, came over. He happened to be the owner of the winning bird and he was beaming with delight at his success. I decided that I didn’t want his custom. But what other excuse did I have to be there?
I presented my card. It didn’t mean a thing to him until he saw the piled-up tonga. Indifferently he asked “You have something to show me?”
So down came the boxes–each of them in turn–and they were opened and their wares displayed. Surrounded by the mob it was impossible to be careful that nothing was stolen.
Customers didn’t always believe in doing their business in private. It seemed to swell the Major’s pride to be watched as he made his selections. It made me wonder what his real status was. I had no idea, of course, so I asked for cash. This appeared to offend him. But his reputation as a fine sportsman might have been dented if he threw everything back at me, so with a dismissive flourish of his hand he flung me a wad of notes.
“Give me the change out of that–and then you can measure me for a suit of woollen jodhpurs.”
I don’t believe he wanted the suit at all. Perhaps he was not satisfied that he had sufficiently impressed the crowd. He certainly presented his huge figure to its best advantage as I put my tape around him.
When deals like this are conducted, the salesman faces a dilemma: should he ask for cash in advance or a cheque, extend credit or suggest sending the goods VPP? I had been told to use my discretion. But at the time Mr Colvin had mentioned one or two bad experiences they’d had in the past when outsized clothes had been returned by the postal service because the customer didn’t have the money to meet his obligations, or had simply denied ordering them. I was having to learn discretion the hard way. As it turned out, the Major’s suit eventually found its way into a special case full of elfin or elephantine clothes, waiting for the unusual customer who was ready to jump at a bargain. But it confirmed my belief that he was only bent on showing off.
Another area where I was having to learn discretion was balancing the need to satisfied Gore & Co that my salary and expenses didn’t exceed an acceptable proportion of profits, yet allow me a little respite from my labours. Not far from Bhopal lay the ancient Buddhist religious centre of Sanchi–one of the major tourist sights of India. Business had been good–and it only meant a short break in the journey to Jhansi–so I thought why not pay it a visit?
There was a train due soon after I got back to the dak bungalow and the stationmaster at Bhopal could easily arrange to have it stop at Sanchi for me. What’s more, as I learnt, there was a dak bungalow there right next to the station. With winter over, and with it the tourist season, it was not likely to be full.
Travelling by train in India needed careful planning. But once you’d mastered the timetables it wasn’t too irksome. Here and there small delays would occur, particularly during the night, when a change might be necessary between trains on different gauges of railway line. It was a nuisance being wakened in the early hours and having to pace the platform, or pass the time in a badly lit, cockroach-ridden waiting room–which worse still often lacked a punkah. So you had to think hard about breaking your journey, once planned.
But I shan’t forget Sanchi. I had thought Bijapur entrancing because of its antiquity, but here–climbing into one of the many stupas, or monuments to the Buddha–it took my breath away to think that human hands could have possibly created them. At the time, of course, I had little experience of this earth’s wonders, or of the patience and devotion lavished by people of past ages on the erection and embellishment of fabulous monuments to their gods or patrons.
It was not so much the size of the Great Stupa itself which amazed me–indeed, pained me–so much as its intricately carved gateways and galleries. Whatever, I wondered, could possibly have impelled people to journey to this barren place, centuries before Christ, to build out of the local sandstone such fantastically beautiful altars to their deity? How could they have stayed so long–heavens knows how long–to execute such delicate carpentry portraying legends in the life of their master? I went away overwhelmed with the pain and suffering which must have been endured by those who had executed this splendid work. Could they have foreseen that in centuries to come even the ruins of their art would bring people from the ends of the earth to stand and gape? All as part of a holiday tour, to be sure–few of these visitors would have any understanding of its true intent.
That one day at Sanchi gave me a degree of spiritual uplift and pride in the achievements of my fellow creatures that no religious service has ever matched. I was now more determined than ever to make the opportunity to see the Taj Mahal, Benares, Delhi and other ancient places about which I’d only read.
…to be continued.