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

A third day of selling would have been impossible because there was practically nothing left in my boxes, so I sent a frantic telegram to Bombay to replenish supplies.  This meant I could not move from where I was for at least three days, but I felt I’d earned some respite from my labours of helping Britain maintain its standard of living in the world.  As luck would have it the rest house was tolerable, its khansamah sociable–and a fair cook into the bargain–and Sebastian was not averse to being out of my sight for a day or two.

“If Sahib likes, I’ll go to Bombay and fetch things,” he volunteered.  He seemed to have little idea how far away Bombay was, or that it would take him two days just to get there.  What was more, the smile accompanying that remark was a little too inscrutable to trust.

To be on the safe side, I only let him have ten rupees from his pay.  Although hitherto I’d had considerable confidence in Sebastian, I mentally exchanged places with him and realised how bored I’d be by now, helping to pack and repack boxes, lift them on and off trains and gharries and tending to all my employer’s needs and wants for weeks on end.  Unlike me, he did not have the excitement of taking orders to compensate.  Besides, although he didn’t show it or remark on it, he must at times have been worried for his wife and six children.  He hadn’t had word of them the whole time we’d been away.

So off he went with his smart leather case and a brand-new plush pillbox of a hat, barefoot for some reason I could not fathom–he normally wore shoes.  Was he going womanising?  I should never know.

If one wanted to study history or explore fine buildings, Patiala was hardly the place to be.  So I stayed put at the rest house, except for the occasional short walk, and simply rested myself and read.  However it must have been the wrong thing to do, since after the parcels from Bombay had reached the station and Sebastian had returned, a lethargy overtook me which temporary destroyed my enthusiasm for work.  Anxiously I wondered if I was brewing an illness.  Or did it happen to other travelling salesman, that once they relaxed their grip they had to build up afresh the desire to go on?  With this concern in mind we made for Jullunder, the next Sikh state.  Fortunately one or two customers at Patiala had armed me with the addresses of friends there on whom I simply had to call.  Otherwise it would have been so easy to feign sickness–homesickness I was sure–and make straight back for Bombay.

In Jullunder no doubt more business would have been possible if I’d been able to concentrate my mind as much as I should have done.  It housed sirdars galore.  I was astonished by the number of nameplates at gates which bore the suffixes BA, LLB.  To be both a sirdar and a barrister seemed to carry a social distinction beyond all other.  Yet why so many of them should have qualified in law without any indication that they were able to practise mystified me.

By the time I got to Kapurthala two days later, my spirits were back to normal and I boldly presented my card at the Maharajah’s palace.  How seldom were the heads of state actually at home!  They told me that the Maharajah had a Spanish wife, who carted him off to Europe whenever she could.  So, with the optimism of youth, I made my next call on the heir-apparent.  Yes, the Tikka Sahib was indeed at home, but the question was–would he see me or give me an appointment?

I didn’t have long to wait to find out.  Within minutes I was invited into a spacious lounge, delightfully decorated, and found myself welcomed in a most charming manner by the Prince and his lovely French-speaking wife.  Whether she was actually French or a cultured Sikh I never discovered.  However I had been born in France–my mother had been living there some years–and I was not ignorant of the language.  So as they chatted quietly between themselves, I was able to forestall their misgivings as they expressed them to each other.  When they discovered this they broke into laughter and thereafter the session continued entirely in English.  It occurred to me later that they could have taken offence at my presumption to eavesdrop on their secret conversation–some might consider a box-wallah to have no business knowing any French at all.  Instead they took it in a spirit of amusement and contritely turned themselves into excellent customers–especially for lengths of the best silks and other materials that I carried.  I thought it tactful to hide my pattern books when making further calls in the state to avoid the possibility of someone else’s wife being subsequently seen wearing similar designs.

Not far away was Amritsar, the most sacred of the Sikh towns.  There things were altogether different.  The easy pace of life in the towns I had just come from was completely absent.  It sometimes happens that a town can be too busy–too thriving–life there being so preoccupied with day-to-day affairs, that its inhabitants are quite indifferent to the presence of strangers.  When the atmosphere of a place is like this, it is better for the stranger to depart again, as I’d learned on one or two earlier occasions.  Amritsar was a self-contained sort of town–it knew what it wanted and where to get it.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj