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

With the grin firmly back in its place, Sebastian was waiting for me at the station exit, boxes already loaded on to two tongas.  We drove up Delhi’s main artery, the Alipore Road, to the Cecil Hotel where the firm had made a provisional booking for me.

Even before I’d collected my list of calls at the poste restante I knew that Delhi could well occupy a week.  I certainly intended that it should because I had already made up my mind to visit the famous Fort and the Emperor Humayan’s tomb, plus a Friday visit to the Jamma Masjid to see the Muslim faithful at weekly prayer, and of course the towering Kutb Minar.  I was inclined to overlook such new-fangled edifices as the Legislative Chamber and the Viceroy’s Palace.  There simply wasn’t time–and anyway they only came to mind because they were the stamping ground of people on whom I was expected to call.

That evening I donned my evening dress once more–the Cecil looked that kind of a place.  I had had all too little opportunity to wear it.  Mixing with other similarly attired guests helped restore my composure after my recent bout of derring-do.

Sitting at the table allotted to me, I soon spotted a face which struck me as familiar.  Yet for some while I was unable to place the man.  He was sitting by himself, his face buried in papers, which were strewn all over his table.  Then suddenly I realised who it was–Mr Hitchcock!

The sight of him there took me back six months to my time on board ship.  Then he had extended me an invitation to call on him if I was ever in Delhi.  At the time I didn’t imagine I ever would be and since then he had gone completely out of my mind, as had Gertie, Tiger Tyler and Dr Novino.  But right at this moment I badly needed company.  The Laura Peters episode was still pricking my conscience–had I really rescued a damsel in distress or had I merely succeeded in driving a wedge between a husband and his wife and unborn child?

But how was I to know that he really meant it?  “Do come and look us up”–was a valediction my parents had often made on holiday to passing acquaintances.  I recalled from subsequent comments they made that they rather hoped the people in question would not remember to take them up on it.  So I got on with my dinner, reading and re-reading my firm’s instructions.

Having finished his meal, Hitchcock suddenly gathered together all his papers and got up as if in a frantic rush.  He passed right in front of me.  I could not decide if I was relieved or sorry about that.  But getting to the door he turned around, peered in my direction and came over.

“At the back of my mind I was sure there was someone here I knew.  And so it proves to be!”  Holding out his hand he beamed at me like a long-lost brother.

“I hope you’re well,” I answered.  “I did spot you, as it happened, but you seemed so immersed in your correspondence…”

“I’m always busy.  It’s what I come here for–to get away from work.  If you’re staying in town we must have a talk.”

I told him I was here for the next day or two.  He sat himself down and asked if I’d mind if he smoked a cheroot while I went on eating.  Before I could utter a word about myself, he plunged into a description of his own life.  He was an engineer–as he’d told me on board ship–one of those engaged in the task of building the new Delhi.  He came to the Cecil every other weekend for a break.  When at last I got him to listen, I told him a little about myself and about Laura Peters.  He thought it all highly amusing.

“You mean to say you let her get away?”

“I beg your pardon?”

He was eyeing me in disbelief.  “You got nothing for your troubles?”

I swore blind that what I had done was merely what any Good Samaritan would do.

“And in that lousy state, too!  You ought to get yourself disinfested–hey, that gives me an idea!  What about joining me in a Turkish bath later this evening?  There are some excellent baths here in the city.”

Apart from some unsupported rumours, I was ignorant of what went on in those establishments and said as much.

“Well, you’ll find out.  You have the shock of your life when the masseur shows you the mud he gets out of your pores.  I go once a fortnight and the dirt he get out of me is bad enough.”

I agreed to come along for the sake of company.  Hitchcock sent his boy round first to make sure they weren’t too booked-up.  After a couple of whiskies in the bar we took a gharry there.

The place was in a crowded street off the Chandni Chowk market.  As we pulled up outside I happened to notice two heavily curtained hand-drawn carriages, rather like the howdahs on an elephant.  Out of each one stepped a small but completely veiled figure.

We went in.  Beyond the entrance the corridor was badly lit and rather creepy.

“Don’t pay any attention to the look of the place,” said Hitchcock to allay my anxiety.  “It gets so much steam they can’t keep it decorated.”

The attendant gave us each a cubicle and pointed out a door to me, giving me to understand I was to go through it when undressed.  The room was so full of steam that I had to be led to the platform where the masseur operated.  For a while his hands felt like thorns driven deep into my muscles.  But soon the pain subsided and I felt a glorious soothing sensation.  The masseur took great delight in showing me the filth streaming from my skin.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj