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

It took four days to get round Jhansi.  Bit by bit the other merchants, the military and the ICS chaps got to know of my visit and plenty of messages were left by bearers at the dak bungalow requesting me to pay a call.  Each day the poor tonga-wallah was run off his feet because few of the appointments stated a particular time-of-day and I would often arrive to find an empty visiting-card box hung on the gate marked NOT AT HOME.  This, I soon got to know, meant that the memsahib was enjoying her after-tiffin snooze.  It also served to remind the unintroduced that the presentation of a visiting card was obligatory before social contact could even be contemplated.  It said KEEP OUT in more ways than one.  For the insignificant, like me, there was no occasion to go defying the warning if I hoped to do business with the household.  Since siestas were customary for Europeans, the only sensible thing to do in the circumstances was to go to bed myself.

On one occasion I was invited to the bungalow of a captain of a native cavalry regiment.  The pretty young memsahib wanted to order a blouse and a nightdress like the samples in my box (I recalled my promise to Chandra Bros and put in a good word).  Then to my surprise she invited me to come to dinner that night if I was free.  Blushing with embarrassment I fumbled for excuses.  But she persisted.  I hadn’t met her husband yetand she was sure he’d love to meet me.

Would her husband really be returning that evening, I anxiously debated with myself.  Or had she on sudden impulse taken a fancy to me?  Had the nervous levity of my sales-talk been misinterpreted as flirtatious?  I thanked my stars I hadn’t measured her up for jodhpurs–but would it be enough to save me?  If her husband did actually turn up, would he upbraid her for forgetting their status to the extent of inviting a mere box-wallah to dinner?  In the end, feeling quite unable to wriggle out of it, I thanked her profusedly and promised to be back at seven-thirty.

What should I wear?  My kit included the proverbial jungle get-up, on the instructions of Mr Colvin, who firmly assured me that at hotels in Delhi, Lahore and Agra I would be expected to dress for dinner.  Having bestowed that intelligence, he promptly docked half a month’s salary to pay for the outfit.  This, as it happened, was the first opportunity I’d had to wear it.  Having adjusted the finishing touches, red silk cummerbund, starched white collar and black bow tie, I surveyed myself in the spotty mirror with a swelling feeling.  Who’d have thought I could manage to look so presentable!

It was a different story by the time I reached the Captain’s bungalow, for the closeness of the night had saturated my shirt and collar.  I could have wept as the khitmatgar let me in.

Captain Benson stepped forward to greet me with outstretched hand and the easiest of smiles.  Behind him stood his charming wife.  But instead of being reassured at this flattering welcome I stood there feeling a bloody fool.  He was coatless and sported a pair of grey flannels.  She was simply dressed in a daytime cotton frock and wore no jewellery beyond her tiny earrings.

“Oh, Mr Nida!”  they exclaimed.  “You shouldn’t have bothered to change!  We’ve only got a frugal meal waiting for you.”

Making the effort to regain my composure, I remarked casually that in Bombay I changed at the end of a day’s work as a matter of course.  True enough, as it happened, but only up to a point.  The climate saw to that.

“Well,” laughed Mrs Benson, “I must say you’re an excellent advert for your firm.  I’m sure Dicky ought to order a new evening outfit at once.”

“Suits me,” replied Dicky.  “Provided he doesn’t need paying–for the dozen or so years it’ll take to make me a Major.”

“I’m afraid we’re strictly cash,” I grinned, gratefully accepting a burra peg.

The meal was just what they said–frugal–but the company more than made up for that.  There was nothing stuffy about Captain Benson and his memsahib.  He was the first of many officers of native regiments I got to know.  I never could understand why they were so easier to get on with than their opposite numbers in British regiments.  In hindsight I suppose the latter worthies were eternally sensitive about something rubbing off on them.

After the meal Captain Benson introduced me to a Burma cheroot.

“They’re only three chips a hundred, but they’re an acquired taste.  You either get to like them or you don’t.”

The Burma cheroot proved a mean enemy.  After a dozen draws, its savagery paralysed my stomach.  Not even another burra peg relieved the feeling of faintness which gradually crept upwards.  There was nothing for it–I was forced to make my apologies and drag myself back to the dak bungalow, promising to return next tiffin-time to let the Captain inspect the contents of my boxes.  That night diarrhoea came upon me once more, but this time I knew how to deal with it.  Within a month I had discarded my clay pipe, the gift from my father’s hand, and was smoking five or six black Burmas a day.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj