An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
At Jhansi I stayed in yet another dak bungalow, but a nicer one than I’d up to now encountered. It became evident that these hostelries fell into three types, according to the district they served. In a purely civilian station the dak bungalow invariably achieved its modest objective, which was to provide a room and good plain food. In provincial capitals, where governors and other high-ups preened their feathers, there was usually a choice of hotels and only the poor and downtrodden ever need stay in the dak bungalow. One there had to be, but its condition was immaterial. But in a large civil and military station like Jhansi, which happened to be a brigade headquarters, Europeans were coming and going all the time, so the khansamah’s standard of hospitality had to be above reproach.
Furthermore this station kept the finest fleet of tongas I had yet come across, rubber-tyred, well-sprung and pulled by strapping Arab steeds. The whole place exuded an air of virility, though little of any other character. But my spirits rose.
I had the addresses of several bazar merchants which the firm had assured me would be well worth a visit. I expected to do enough trade here to enable me to take some time off in Agra with a clear conscience.
A telegram awaited me at the post office, instructing me to collect another box at the railway station. This would equip me to service the requirements of the officers’ wives. I was shocked–what on earth was I expected to know about women? Gore & Co. did in fact have a ladies’ department, but it was in another section of the premises. There had been no occasion for me to go there. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would ever have the slightest need to be concerned with its mysteries.
I took a deep breath and summoned the spirit of Clive. It meant more business–so why not? Sebastian and I got the box back to my room and I shut the door firmly. Opening it with blushing face and pounding pulse I found a detailed and explicit note of its contents, with all the prices carefully listed. Besides tablecloths, embroidered mats and pretty handkerchiefs, there were dressing-table sets, perfumes and bracelets.
Then things went from bad to worse.
As I probed there came forth dainty shoes and specimen blouses, stockings, nightdresses and silken underwear shaped to cover parts of the female physique I wasn’t even meant to know existed. What a terrifying consignment for a young man of sheltered upbringing! I shut the lid in deepest embarrassment, looking round sheepishly at Seb, who grinned his usual gleaming grin. My mind raced. Whatever would happen if, by accident, this box got opened up in the middle of the officers’ mess?
I fell to wondering whose idea of a joke it was to lumber me with this. Had I not got enough to worry about, with suits, rainproofs, dressing gowns and hats and caps of every conceivable European sort, both civil and military? Not to mention uniforms, Wilkinson’s swords, Sam-Browns, watches, travelling alarm clocks, collar-studs and cuff-links, slippers, ties, puttees and socks. I carried samples and catalogues of cutlery and kitchen utensils, tackle and camp-gear, guns and ammunition. You name it–I took orders for it. I was a flying Selfridge’s–that spanking new store just opened in London’s Oxford Street.
From mediaeval times our merchants had roved the seas through wind and storm, facing deadly dangers to establish trading posts in faraway places like India and Cathay. Why did they do it? England has always needed to trade in order to live. Was I not an Englishman, a merchant-adventurer of the same kidney? So I used to tell myself, especially when the going was hard.
I thought of the goods I carried. Made in England, every one, I reflected with satisfaction. Well–nearly every one. It annoyed me that my best-selling line was a double-action strop for sharpening safety-razors–“made in USA”. I was absurdly glad when my firm ran right out of the things.
Another problem presented itself. How on earth was I going to manage to pile seven boxes on a tonga? Six had just fitted nicely, plus two suitcases, my own and Sebastian’s. For the present we could leave the suitcases at the dak bungalow, but the trouble would come when we had to get everything back to the railway station.
With trembling knees I made my first Jhansi call at the bazar to try my luck with my new lines. The firm had been wise enough to supply me with a list of native customers they considered credit-worthy–these were few and far between. I sought the addresses of the merchants on my list, until at last I came across one displaying oddments of female attire.
The owner had a storeroom as big as a barn at the back of the shop. I was grateful to be able to open the shameful box out of the sight of passers-by and spread my wares. Mr Colvin had been at pains to initiate me into the ritual of bargaining with native customers who were themselves in business. First of all I was to show the normal retail prices and offer 15% discount. This of course never worked. I was then to increase the discount in the face of continued sales resistance to 20%, then 25% and finally to one-third. Beyond that I had no authority to go. It would have saved a lot of time to offer the biggest discount right at the start, but whatever I might do, deals were invariably difficult to strike. By way of cash the most I could expect was a deposit of 20% of the net price.
Chandra Bros styled themselves General Merchants. Hides and furs, carpets and rugs, cotton bales and oil drums, rubber tyres, sheets of zinc and camp equipment were jumbled higgledy-piggledy with medicines, soap, towels, rice, maize and all sorts of Indian vegetables nameless in the West. By some mystic genius Mr Ram Chandra and his brother managed to put their hats down in this chaos and find them again unerringly. One by one, Sebastian opened the boxes. To my surprise, Mr Ram, peering over his pince-nez, made a bee-line for the ladies’ gear. I had of course hoped that he would show some interest in the items, if only to let me pick up some specialised knowledge concerning them in the only decent way I could.
He hesitated for a moment, then he disappeared. He soon returned, wiping his hands on a towel. That was considerate, I thought, warming to the fellow. His pidgin English proved to be on a level with my pidgin Hindustani, so we understood each other as well as could be expected.
“Lots of nice young ladies in Jhansi,” he tittered.
I said I didn’t know.
“Perhaps you save me a journey to Bombay?”
“I hope so,” I replied. And I meant it.
He was nothing if not astute. He briskly countersigned the pages in my order-book for a ship-load of goods, including an extensive selection from the ladies’ box, added it all up, deducted one-third without a word and made a note of the final amount. I thanked him for his substantial order and prepared to leave. With a smile he handed me 20% in cash.
“This is on condition, you understand, that you do not sell anything to the ladies of Jhansi.”
I was taken aback. “Then what am I supposed to do about customers’ wives who may want to order?”
“Ah, you show them the box if they want to see it. Then you tell them I am your agent, holding a stock of everything you have, eh?”
I could but admire the fellow’s nerve. The bargaining tactics of Indian dealers were something I was going to have to be on my guard against. Well, a bird in the hand, they say…
Which reminded me that I ought to allow him do something for me in return. I pulled out my inch-tape. “There’s one or two things I need to know. How do I measure a woman for clothes?”
He burst out laughing and slapped his thighs. “How do you think?”
I shrugged and put the tape round his chest. “Like this?”
“A little bit higher. Around the nipples, where they are fattest.”
Next he drew his fingers in a line round his waist, then round his buttocks.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“What more do you want?”
“I mean… what about the length for knickers or jodhpurs? Do I have to measure… er… as for a man? Erm… from the crutch?”
Once more he exploded with laughter. It took him a while to recover, then holding my forearm he patted my back and said, “You really should, of course. You can always try! But unless you fancy sleeping with the woman, or want her husband to shoot you, it is better to guess …eh?”
…to be continued.