An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
This episode changed my mind about the calls I should be making in Delhi. I decided to leave the government set firmly alone and try my luck in the native quarter. This proved to be a very wise move. Next day, passing through the Kashmir Gate, I made for the cloth sellers’ bazaar and did a roaring trade, not only with merchants but with rich Indians who seemed to have money to burn.
One Punjabi, who must have weighed all of twenty stone, offered to buy half a dozen suits at double the price if I would promise to fit them on him before they were finished. Since I had to return via Delhi from wherever I went in the next few weeks, I agreed. He was so absurdly pleased that he went on to buy for his wives all the ladies’ watches, jewellery and perfumes my boxes contained, paying cash for them. To round it all off, he directed me to a wealthy Hindu friend, a man of considerable bulk, with a wall-eye. At first this man said there was nothing he required. But suddenly he changed his mind and invited me to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea with him and his associates, which we did squatting on our haunches.
We made quite a party. Their evident friendliness moved me to answer all their questions about myself. My straightforward life appeared to intrigue them. But none of them wanted clothes. As they explained to me, they usually wore dhotis and shirts which could be made cheaply enough locally. Nevertheless they made me turn out all my boxes, sorted through them and inspected the catalogues, arguing among themselves in a dialect I couldn’t follow. Concluding the session, my host said with a broad smile, “Right–this is what we want.”
Taking a list from a menial, he handed it to me. I was flabbergasted. There were ticks against tents and other camping equipment, knives and forks, dinner sets, silk and woollen cloths duly identified from my pattern books, shoes of several different sizes, blankets and sheets, raincoats, dressing gowns and endless other things. There was no need for me to ask how many of each item was wanted: the numbers were clearly indicated–a dozen of this, a hundred of that, a gross here and there. This was not an order–it was a shipment!
Where was the catch? My host fully understood my reaction. “I take 10%,” he said, “and give you a cheque now, or I give you 10% deposit and you can send a goods VPP–or any other way you like.” I thought I detected a cunning look in his wall-eye.
My noticeable hesitation was due in part to my never having faced a request this sort before. Mentally I tried to calculate the value of the goods he’d ordered. To add it all up correctly in my head was beyond my capabilities, but I reckoned it totalled over £5,000. A 10% discount would mean that Gore & Co would have to forego £500, which at the time I thought a considerable sum. All the same, I estimated there’d be a profit of £1,600 or more, so Gore & Co would rake-in over £1,000, even after shipping costs had been met. It was not as if I was dealing with an old customer. This man was quite new to them–and if I did not accept his order, another firm would get it at a later date.
I took a deep breath. “I’ll take the cheque.”
He gave instructions for it to be made out for his signature and as he handed it to me, he put his fat arm round my shoulder and murmured softly in my ear, “You’ll make a good businessman.”
Before we parted I asked him to satisfy my curiosity as to why he had let me have such a big order when he must have accounts with plenty of other businesses like mine–which no doubt would have extended him credit.
“I’m pleased you asked this,” he replied. “I did so because you took a cup of tea with me. Because you’re a white man who treats me as an equal–although I am dark-skinned.”
As I gazed at him in amazement he went on, “Of course you and I know we are equals–more than equal sometimes, by birth and breeding as well as education. But the people your government send out here think they’re dealing with slaves. Except for an occasional one like you, I don’t expect they will ever think differently… until we throw them out.”
It was an eye-opener to me, to be granted the privilege of seeing myself through the eye of a Hindu. There and then I determined that I would seek similar opportunities of socialising with Indians, if conviviality was to be that well-rewarded.
As it turned out, there was no need for me to venture beyond the precincts of the bazaar all day. My last customer had armed me with several names of business friends. It said a lot for his standing among them that every one, without exception, either saw me straightaway or asked me to return at a later hour–and they all gave me an order. In the one or two cases where they were not merchants, they saw to it that their own wardrobes were replenished, or those of their wives and concubines.
After an exhausting day we dragged ourselves slowly back home–me, Sebastian and the tonga. Making my way back to the hotel, once again I passed the Turkish Bath and I was reminded of Hitchcock. Another of those quaint hand-drawn palanquins had stopped outside. There emerged a slight veiled figure who swiftly disappeared through the entrance. Trade of this kind, I concluded, went on all around the clock.
…to be continued.