An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
Delhi, the former capital of the Moghul emperors, had an air of calm sophistication which up till then I have not encountered in any Indian city I had visited. Once again it had become the seat of government and I was awestruck by the sumptuous residences, often located in large compounds, on which I supposed I’d be expected to call.
Next morning, having loaded up the boxes, I made several calls to the houses of senior officials. All quite fruitless. It soon became clear that chaprassis had reverted to type. However spruce I tried to look, they seem to know that I was a chota sahib peddling wares. So when they went off and returned with my card and a brief shake of the head, I had no option but to take it on trust that the master of the house had simply turned me away. Yet often I was in doubt about that.
Fortunately there were on my list the names of several old customers, and they did want to see me. It afforded me much amusement to call again, on invitation this time, after messages had been left for me at the hotel. The obsequious demeanor of the chaprassis was then good to see. I had my own back on them, striding past them in utter contempt.
One such message came to me from Maiden’s, Delhi’s leading hotel. But any smugness I might have had from calling there on invitation was soon to evaporate. The customer concerned–I shall call him plain Sir Edward to spare him the embarrassment he saw fit to serve upon me–had recently been transferred to Delhi to take up a distinguished appointment on the Viceregal staff. The message said come after dinner, which was the only time he said he could see me.
So at eight-thirty prompt I passed through the portals of what was India’s most elegant inland hotel. Having presented my card to the porter, I was bidden to take my seat among a gaggle of guests in evening dress, all solemnly taking coffee. I had left Sebastian with the tonga outside in the road. I began to grow nervous and wanted to flee the place. I pictured myself being invited to spread the contents of my boxes out on the floor in full view of everybody, ladies’ lingerie and all. Every moment I was kept waiting added to my unease. But that was nothing to what was in store for me.
In spite of being middle-aged, Sir Edward cut a fine athletic figure. He strode impatiently into the lounge, his eyes darting here and there. Coming up to me he asked abruptly, “Gore & Co?”
I jumped to my feet. “Yes sir.” But I didn’t look him in the eye–my gaze was fixed in horror on the morning suit he was wearing.
“Just take a look at this!” he shouted, extending his arms like a scarecrow. Addressing himself to the assembly at large, he added with a sardonic smile, “Has anyone ever seen a suit fitting like this?”
It was indeed a dreadful fit, even to my untrained eye. But I was infuriated by this exhibition. Although I was there representing my firm, I was an innocent party in the matter.
“Come here,” he bawled, “whatever your name is. I’ve had all my clothes from Gore’s for years–and during that time my measurements haven’t altered an inch. What’s suddenly gone wrong with your fellows that they can do this to me?”
One of two of the ladies present giggled into their coffee, while the men glanced from the suit to me and back again with unconcealed amusement. Anger welled up inside me, but in this sort of company, I knew, restraint was my better option. I heard myself say “I–I expect there’s been a mistake in the packing department, sir.”
“I should hope so! Well–what you going to do about it?”
In an effort to look professional I produced my inch tape. “Could I check your measurements, sir? I’m sure my firm would never ask you to accept this as it is.” With my jaw firmly clenched I took Sir Edward’s sizes. But the time I’d finished, the lounge was packed with people, quizzing and joking among themselves. My humiliation was total.
“May I wait while you take the suit off, sir. I’ll send it back and ask the firm to alter it–or refund you the cost.”
“Go to Rankin’s, Sir Edward,” came a voice from the crowd. “They’ve never let me down.” The assembly erupted in laughter.
At that point it must have occurred to my worthy customer that he too was part of this pantomime he had set me up in–and the sympathy of the audience wasn’t necessarily going to be all on his side. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Send it back as you suggest and get it altered–and bring it back here for me to try on. Then we’ll decide what to do about it.”
I told him it would take a fortnight. He put his hand to his forehead. “By then I should be my new house. So ask for me here first.” With that he swivelled on his heel and strode out of the room, soon to return in his evening dress. His bearer handed me the suit. I flung it over my arm and got out of the place as fast as I could.
…to be continued.