An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
In Delhi I began to feel the daily grind getting me down. If this were my only interest in life, I’d soon want to give it up. Fortunately I had the urge to develop more and more interest in India and its history. What better place than Delhi to satisfy this urge. So after two more days I abandoned work for what I considered some well deserved relaxation.
I went exploring. A guest at the hotel advised me that one of the things to do was to go along to the Jamma Masjid, one of the most famous of mosques, and watch the Friday prayers. Along with a few other non-Muslims I managed to secure a good vantage point in a gallery from where I could look down upon the great courtyard. I watched the throng as they entered and performed their ablutions in the central bathing pool. In a short while the whole square was crammed with white-robed figures on their knees paying homage to their creator. Reciting verses from the Q’uran with their Imam, they bent over together to touch the ground with their foreheads.
I also went to inspect Shah Jahan’s Fort and Palace, not to mention the Kutb Minar, the tallest minaret in the world. It rose to 240 ft and was still standing after eight centuries despite the crude medieval tools used to build it. Although it was a world-famous landmark, no one could tell me the reason why it was built. Legend had it that it was intended to commemorate a victory.
Equally as fascinating was a visit to the workshops of the renowned ivory-carvers. They plied their trade in full view of the passers-by, apparently oblivious to their presence. I watched a bearded old man who could barely stand as he put the finishing touches to a man-sized model of some maharajah’s ornate palace. Out of curiosity I beckoned to an assistant in the adjoining shop and asked him how long it taken him to reach that stage. He shook his head with a frown, giving me to understand that this was a question that should not be asked. But no sooner had I turned on my heel than he hurried forward and touched my arm. It so happened we were now out of earshot of the old craftsman.
“Since you are a tourist I shall say to you that the old man is 80 years old and has worked on the model all his life. It has made him quite blind.”
The assistant went on to tell me that inside the model every ceiling and every piece of furniture was even more delicately carved. The Rajah who had commissioned it from the carver’s father had long since died, but the family had asked for it to be finished.
“It is hoped that if the present Rajah decides in the end he does not want it, some rich tourist will buy it to put it in a museum.”
As I dwelt on the decades of wasted existence the old man had endured, simply no doubt to keep body and soul together, I couldn’t stop tears welling up in my eyes. But over the years I’ve come to revise my opinion about the matter. When the model eventually goes on display, as it surely will, for the next hundred years, maybe five hundred, maybe even a thousand, people will come to stare in amazement at the old man’s life’s-work. Whereas in spite of my busy and varied career, I shall be lucky if what I’ve achieved will mean anything to anyone, ten years after I am gone.
Beyond Delhi I had no definite plans, except the revisit to which I was committed. No guidance had come from headquarters. I was fully expecting to be ordered to Lucknow or Cawnpore, which lay to the south-east of where I was, and so gradually work my way back to Bombay.
There were two reasons why I might want to put off doing this. Firstly, I had to return to Delhi anyway to fit my customers and the choice of date was in the hands of my firm. Secondly, I could not see why the firm would wish me to return to Bombay when business was going so well.
Poring over a map I gazed longingly at the North West Frontier. Why should I not see the Khyber Pass, and perhaps open up some new accounts on the way? With no more hesitation I sent a telegram to Bombay stating that my next destination would be Lahore. Once I got that far, I reasoned, they would hardly call me back.
To justify the time spent, I would have to do plenty of business. That meant I would have to hire help in order to get my advertising leaflets distributed, because of course headquarters would be unable to advise anyone of my pending arrival. To date I had made little use of leaflets, since I’d found the distributors were very rarely trustworthy. It didn’t seem to matter to them whether the bills were delivered today or tomorrow, or at all. On occasions I had been convinced that they’d come back for their money having destroyed them all, or at least the greater part.
Instead of going directly to Lahore, I thought I’d risk a detour by way of Sikh country. I say “risk” because there were few of my colleagues who would have gone out of their way to court the attention of Sikhs. Of course I had read of their fighting prowess. But the few I had met I had quite liked. Besides, there were one or two chiefs, like the maharajahs of Patiala and Kapurthala, who were customers of the firm.
At the palace of the former gentleman, I learnt that he was abroad. However his ADC–Sirdar Somebody Singh–generously agreed to see me. The ensuing session set the pattern for my dealings with his people.
He was a tall man with the beard and a tight turban. He had the easiest of manners–and even if he hadn’t wanted to buy anything, his insatiable curiosity would have compelled him to see what I had to offer. So he was doomed from the start.
After half-an-hour, my conscience began to prick me as to whether he wasn’t overdoing things a little. So I interrupted his purchasing to inquire if he had any friends who might become customers. This seemed to throw him a lifeline. Straightaway he proceeded to make me up a list of calls in the neighbourhood, writing each name on a separate visiting card as my means of introduction. Was I right, I asked myself, in letting him keep some of the articles from my cases, adding their value to the VPP bill he would have to stump up for later? Or would he refuse the parcel, so rendering valueless the clothes which had been made for him? Not many months later some debt-collecting missions came my way which clearly demonstrated the financial risk which Gore & Co took in opening accounts with native customers. But just then, having strayed into the wilds, as it were, with no guidance from headquarters, I had to rely on my intuition. Thanks to my recent experiences, I was feeling far from competent to sit in judgment on the human character. All the same, there must be something inborn in a worthwhile salesman which makes him fairly certain whom he can trust. The impression which the Sirdar made on me–his obvious sincerity, his immediate cessation of purchases once I had interrupted him, his solicitude for my success with his friends, his whole bearing–all combined to make me quite unable to ask him for money. Indeed if he on his part had asked me for a small loan, I do believe I’d have given it to him.
If I imagined that I was going to get through Patiala in an hour or two, I was sorely mistaken. In the event it took me two whole days to work through my calling list, not merely to cover the Sirdar’s introductions, but because every Sikh I saw invariably had someone else in mind who would be glad to see me. What a visit!
…to be continued.