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

I had forgotten about Tozer, more or less.  When I did think of him I reassured myself that there were two hotels and a dak bungalow to stay at.  So there was a good chance I’d miss him altogether, even if he had stormed on ahead of me to Agra.

I’d done pretty well on this trip so I reckoned the firm could afford to put me up at the Hotel Cecil.  A chap as mean-minded as Tozer would hardly venture to stay there, said I to myself.

I dressed for dinner and was just making my way into the dining room when I stopped dead.  There he was, scooping up the curry like an elephant having a dust-bath.  I tried to dodge out of sight but his potato face had more than enough eyes to spot me.

“Ha!  It’s you again!”

I wandered over sheepishly and nodded.

“You didn’t really expect to pull off a second Jhansi trick on me, did you?”

“Come on–I gave you two days’ start.  Have you only just arrived?”

“No–and I’m off again.”  He belched noisily.  “Where–I’ll leave you to guess.”

“In that case there’s no point in my staying on here either.  I’ll tell you what.  Let’s take the day off and you can show me over the Taj.”

He trumpeted in derision, his nose swelling visibly.

“Show you–what?  Good God, man, why do you think I came out here?  For my health?  To write a history book?”

He scooped up another trunkful of curry and gesticulated with his spoon at the empty chair opposite, the words temporarily dammed up inside him.  I obeyed the spoon and sat down.

“I’ve been out here ten years now and I don’t know the first thing about the place.  And what’s more, I don’t-bloody-care!”  His nose was now the colour of a bruised plum.

“I’ve saved up three thousand goblins,” he continued, “and soon I’ll be back in good old London Town for keeps.  And then you can have the whole blasted country to yourself.”  He shovelled in another spoonful of curry.

Tozer was not one of your empire-builders, whatever else he was.  Better pay, long periods of leave, early retirement–these were the things that lured men like him out to India.  Not for him the Taj Mahal and the Man Mandir Palace.  At the other end of the scale I doubted whether he even noticed the starving millions whose wretched condition he’d had far more opportunity to witness at first-hand than any other European alive.  A sudden feeling of revulsion came upon me at the thought that I might one day become just like him.  His very company might contaminate me.  I wanted to get away–from him, from the hotel, from Agra.

Where should I go?  To Delhi?  To Jaipur or Cawnpore?  Any of those might be Tozer’s next destination.  So I went on impulse to a tiny Muslim state about which I knew absolutely nothing–just to mark time on Tozer and let him get right away.  Then I planned to come back to Agra and maybe learn where he’d gone, which might give me some inkling of his itinerary.

The dak bungalow there was little better than a dosser.  The whole State had the appearance of a slum and the Nawab’s little palace seemed to be in a condition of dire neglect.  Nothing here as elaborate as a tonga.  There was an ekka waiting, little more than a canopied plank on two wheels, but neither the ekka-wallah nor the khansamah at the dak bungalow seemed to understand my Hindustani.  This was doubtless because they spoke Urdu.  Sebastian couldn’t make himself understood that well either.  What a fool I had been to come here!

There was no train back to Agra until nightfall.  At least I could call on the Nawab’s palace as a way of killing time.  Boarding the ekka, with much pointing and gesturing, I managed to persuade the driver to take me to the palace gates.

As we approached the gates the sentry shook his head.  I supposed that meant there was nobody there.  Thoroughly dejected and calling Tozer every name under the sun I ordered the ekka-wallah to turn round.  We had only gone a few yards, however, when a servant of some kind hailed us from the roadside.  More gesticulating and more bad Urdu followed, during which I managed to fathom that the Nawab was away to the South shooting, but that there was a son here who was curious to know who had turned up unannounced on his doorstep.

The servant led us to a villa slightly more elegant than the rest.  There was a board on the gate, written in English:  “Sahibzada Achmed Mohammed, State Engineer.”  The owner of the villa, said the servant, was one of the Nawab’s sons.  He said it again, obviously meaning it to impress.

We waited on the verandah.  An hour passed by.  Then he appeared, very handsome and full of bonhomie.

“You are selling something, no doubt?”  he queried in a voice which I got the impression was the one he used to his lowest menials.

“I do have things to sell,” I replied, with what I judged was the right touch of dignity.  He in turn judged that I had some fears about him which needed allaying.

“I know England well.  I graduated from Cambridge.  I even married an English girl who is with me here…”

That seemed to be enough reassurance for now, he thought.  “Anyway, may I see what you have brought?”

We got down to business.  He knew exactly what he wanted, he insisted, though finally he upturned all my boxes.  “I prefer lengths of cloth to made-up suits and jodhpurs.  I have an excellent derzi who can copy anything made in your Saville Row.  Anyway, let us see what is in this box.”

He chose some articles of jewellery which I suspected were for his personal adornment, not his English wife’s.  Volunteering the superfluous information that he had no account with my firm, he suggested that the additional articles he had ordered should be sent by VPP, with the value of what I was leaving behind added to the bill.  To his utter disdain, I refused.

“You know, young man, that my father is entitled to a salute of eleven guns!  Surely you are not going to refuse me credit?”

I had been caught out by that trick before.  When a VPP parcel was refused (which happened quite often) the postal services simply returned it.  So I insisted on cash down for the jewellery I was leaving with him.

The thin veneer of charm dissolved into smoke before my eyes.  “Very well, boy–get yourself out of here at once.”

I set-to and repacked my boxes with Sebastian’s help.  “And just remember this,” the Nawab’s son hissed as he strode down the steps of the verandah, “there are no police in this State.  I trust you will get safely to your next destination.”

I bowed my thanks for the interest he had shown and mounted the ekka.  At any moment, I though, a horde of ruffians would emerge and set upon me with sticks.  Or knives.  Meanwhile the Sahibzada beckoned to his servant.  Together they jumped aboard a decrepit old motor car and drove off in a cloud of blue smoke.

No sooner was he gone than a woman’s voice startled me.  “Is anyone there?”

It spoke English.  Pure Cockney–you could have knocked me in the Old Kent Road.  Marie Lloyd and her cock-linnet sprang to mind.

“Yes,” I replied cautiously.  “I’m a traveller–from Bombay.”

“Gawd–it’s luvverley to see a white face again.  I saw you through the screen, talking to Achmed.  ‘E’s my old man and I’m not allowed to show myself in public.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?”  I couldn’t avoid asking it.

“P’raps…  yeah, there might be.”  I caught the sound of a sob.  “You see, ‘e and me got spliced the day before ‘e left London after his training…”

So much for Cambridge, I thought.

“…And this is where ‘e brought me.  It’s–it’s just dreadful!”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

“I’ll die.  I–I wish someone would take me away from ‘ere.”

I heard myself as if it were another person speaking.  “Where do you want to go?”

“Anywhere.  Anywhere but this God-forsaken ‘ole.”

In her distress her accent was growing stronger with every word, as London Town as bubble-and-squeak.  In the wastes of a remote native state, a disembodied female voice talking Cockney through a carved screen was exquisitely bizarre.  We could have been in the Old Kent Road.

“I come from Kentish Town.  I used to think it was ‘ell on earth, but it was sheer ‘eaven to this.”

Five miles out and the wrong side of the river, I said to myself.  But I was no Henry Higgins.  I suppose living in Streatham hadn’t taught me much–about life or accents.  I was no Sexton Blake either.  I wasn’t made of the sort of stuff which went around abducting damsels from seraglios.  I was trying to fight off a nightmare sensation of panic.  The sensible thing to do would have been to slip away without another word.

Sebastian stood regarding me with puckered brow, unable to make out what on earth was going on.  He went over and spoke to the ekka-wallah.  Both of them suddenly burst out laughing.  That did it.  I decided to make my escape.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing much I can do for you.  I’m only here on a three-year contract.  It would be wrong of me to help you leave your husband.”

She started weeping freely now.  “Oh, we never got churched or anything like that.  He promised to, before we left, but it never ‘appened.  He ‘asn’t got a claim on me, really.  And I’m only twenty-one.  And not bad-looking, and…  and…  there’s no proper doctor ‘ere and I’m going to have a baby!”  Her voice tailed off in sobs.

If only Tozer could see me now.  If he only knew the predicament he had landed me in.  He’d laugh like a drain.

“I–I really don’t know what to say.  I’m going to Delhi on business…”

“Well that’ll do!”  she shrieked.  “You could put me on a train there.  I won’t be a nuisance to you.  Promise.”

I took a deep breath.  “When could you get away?”

“Oh, any time.”

“You mean–you can just walk out?”

“Yes–No!  Not until dark.  We’d be spotted and get our throats slit.”

“Damn.  The train’s at seven.”

“That doesn’t matter.  It goes dark around six.  I’ve got some money…”

“All right,” I said.  “I’ll be back here at six.”

She whooped with joy.  “You’re a real angel!”

“Thank you very much, but I don’t want the harp and wings just yet.”

“We’d better meet some way down the road.”  Her voice sank conspiratorially.  “I’ll be in purdah.  You’ll ‘ave to take me somewhere and get me proper clothes.”

I pulled Sebastian aside.  “Look here…”  I began.

“I hear what you tell memsahib,” he said glumly.  “You will want ekka–no?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

Sebastian shook his head.  “Very bad.”

“What do you mean?  She’s in trouble…!”

“Driver is Muslim.  He not like it.”

I reeled.  The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.  Sebastian, though a devout Madrassi Christian, was far more attuned to the religious susceptibilities of his countrymen than I’d ever be.

“I daresay you’re right,” I breathed.  But how on earth was I going to manage without the ekka?

“Look, supposing I go on foot to fetch the memsahib.  You wait back at the station with everything all ready.”  He nodded reluctantly.  I hoped to goodness I wouldn’t get lost in the dark.

Back at the dak bungalow I made a grab for the scotch bottle.  The first double-scotch hit bottom and put me on a more even keel.  The khansamah found me a plate of cold mutton and I took a shower.

Six o’clock loomed.  Very soon dusk would descend and I had a mile-and-a-half walk ahead of me, with only matches to light the way.  If the Sahibzada was out to get me, he couldn’t have arranged things better himself.

Calling Sebastian, I gave him some money.  “Go and buy tickets for us to Delhi.  A second-class one for me and two third-class tickets for you and the memsahib.”

He didn’t answer.  You should have seen his face.

“Dash it, man!  She’s going to be in purdah!”

The implications of that sunk in.  He nodded.

“You mustn’t let her talk either.  Otherwise they’ll know she’s English.  Then the fat will be in the fire.”

“I beg your pardon, sahib?”

“Never mind.  Just do as I say.”

He went off obediently, but without his usual sunny smile.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj